Keeping Things Organized: Reference Managers
Something I learned quickly after entering into a doctoral program is that there are important tools and skills to have for professional success, and programs don't do a great job of telling students about these tools and skills. Instead, the expectation seems to be that students will learn about them on their own or, perhaps more likely, they are so essential to the everyday work of professionals that it's hard to remember the fact that students need to be told about them.
The first of these that I want to cover, because it is beneficial to start using one as soon in your professional career as possible (even in undergraduate), is reference managers.
Reference managers are software tools that keep track of the scholarly articles that you read, allowing you to keep everything centralized, organized, and easily available. While the function of reference managers seems simple at first, they play crucial roles.
- Easy organization of all your articles: Saving your articles as PDFs in a bunch of folders makes it difficult to find what you need at the right time. File titles are limited so you don't easily see the title and the authors at the same time. You may not remember where you put a certain collection of articles. In order to have articles in multiple places, you have to create links or copies of the articles. Reference managers allow you to have a central collection of articles, which you can then assign to as many folders as you want. They display all of the relevant information to you at a glance, and they provide search capabilities that make it easy to find the article you're thinking about.
- Citation management: Reference managers have a library of many different reference styles, and they can automatically format the information for an article into the right format you need. This saves a lot of time, and helps to ensure that your references are formatted properly. (To be fair, there is a level of work needed; a reference manager may have inaccurate information for an article, so you need to check that the information it has is correct). In fact, many reference managers link in to word processors so they can automatically format in-text citations appropriately, and paste an entire bibliography based on the articles you inserted throughout the document.
- Backup: Many reference managers will backup your articles. While useful by itself, perhaps the more helpful feature is the backup of your annotations on the articles (highlights, notes, etc.) which isn't easy to do without the use of a reference manager. It's a relatively new feature that is being added to some reference managers, but it also allows...
- Syncing across devices: Articles (and increasingly, annotations) are easy to sync among your devices. Read your articles on a tablet, make your notes and highlights, then pull them up on a laptop or desktop as you review articles and use them for a paper.
These are just some of the advantages there are to the use of a reference manager. The sooner you start using a reference manager, the greater your collection will be and the more benefit you'll get from your collection of articles. Being able to search your articles (including full text) and your annotations makes relocating articles easier, saving you the hassle of having to go out and unknowingly rediscover and reread an article.
There are many reference managers available, but there are three that I've seen used the most: Endnote, Zotero, and Mendeley.
Endnote is a desktop-based (though increasingly web-based as well) program that was the king of reference managers for a long time. Zotero became popular for some time, and was originally tied into Firefox (though it has launched a desktop version). Finally, Mendeley (my favorite) has a desktop client (even for linux) but is also making efforts to be available on tablets (iOS already, Android soon) and the web (soon). Zotero and Mendeley also have the benefit of being free.
Even if you don't think that you have a current need for a reference manager, I highly recommend you get one and start becoming familiar with it if you plan to go into a program or field that involves a lot of research. The interfaces of the reference managers are fairly similar, and many of them support the same library files, so switching to a different one later shouldn't be too difficult (should you find that your first pick isn't a good fit for you).
Have questions about reference managers? Want to learn more about how I use Mendeley? Let me know in the comments!