Review: Mendeley for citation management & academic networking

NYU Libraries invited the folks at Mendeley to run a hands-on Mendeley workshop at Bobst Library this past week. For an hour and a half, NYU faculty, students, and librarians explored this increasingly popular research tool.

NYU Libraries already licenses/supports a number of other familiar and convenient citation management tools: RefWorks, EndNote, Zotero, etc. So why consider yet another one?

Unlike most other such applications, Mendeley is designed to be an academic networking tool as well as a platform-independent citation management tool that syncs your data across all your computers. The Mendeley desktop tool is available for Mac, Windows, and Linux, and there are “lite” versions for the iPhone and iPad. Mendeley combines a light-weight, web-based interface with a more highly-functional desktop application for managing your citations and your documents, as well as your workgroups (more below).

Citations can be created three ways: manually; automatically, by dragging a document onto the Mendeley desktop application; or from select websites by using the “Import to Mendeley” browser button. Mendeley tries to automatically extract citation information from the documents you add or from the current webpage you are on when you “Import to Mendeley.” Tagging and folders facilitate sorting and searching citations.

Academic networking is at the core of Mendeley’s business model. Taking inspiration from social networking services like Facebook and LinkedIn, when you sign up for a Mendeley account, you are encouraged to create a profile listing your biographical information, publications, and other scholarly achievements. You can then search for other users and add them to your contacts list. (In your privacy settings you can choose to be visible to everyone on the web, only Mendeley users, or only your own contacts). From your dashboard you can post updates and see what your contacts are doing.

The more innovative feature of Mendeley, which distinguishes it from the others, is that it aggregates and exposes all users’ citations (while maintaining user’s privacy) so you can also search or browse across the entire set of citations to find resources related to your research, then add them to your own citation library for further customization.

Workgroups allow you to take the networking further by creating both public and private spaces where you and colleagues can share citations (in both public and private groups) as well as papers (in private groups only). Private workgroup members can also share sticky-note comments on articles.

How well does it work?
Creating and importing citations: Mendeley is designed to easily import citations from specific sites, including Google Scholar, Google Books, PubMed, JSTOR, WorldCat, and dozens of others. Importing citations this way is a snap: just click on the “Import to Mendeley” browser button and Mendeley creates a list of all the citations on the webpage with the option to import them plus any associated documents into your citation library. (This is much better than Zotero, which only creates a single citation for the entire results page rather than parsing out the individual article citations.) However, outside of this set of 45+ databases from which Mendeley will detect bibliography data, it behaves just like Zotero, creating a single citation for the webpage and ignoring any citations on the page. Thus, for most websites, to capture individual citations Mendeley users will need to create them manually.

Auto extraction of citation data:  The automatic extraction of citation information from documents is hit or miss. Sometimes it captures the citation information accurately and sometimes it doesn’t. While touching up a citation is easier than creating one from scratch, it would be great to see improvements in this functionality.

Citing while writing: Though Mendeley installs with only 15 citation styles, there are over 1000 more available for use. There are plugins for Word (Windows & Mac OS X) and OpenOffice (Windows, Mac OS X, & Linux). The Word/Mac plugin adds an AppleScript/Automator workflow to the Word menu bar and inserting in-line and bibliographical citations works as you’d expect. (I haven’t tested this with OpenOffice or on Windows or Linux). In addition, to create in-text citations in other text editors, you can also drag and drop references from the Mendeley desktop library directly into the text edit screen (this works for Word, Google Docs, blogs, emails, etc.).

Workgroups: I tested both the public and private group options, and they seem to work as described.

Areas for development:

Tags: the “filter my tags” option in the desktop app only allows you to filter on one tag at a time (whereas Zotero allows you to click on multiple tags to find items marked with all the tags selected). You can search using multiple tags in Mendeley, but it requires using unintuitive search syntax in the search bar.

Tags: there is no way to search for all untagged items, which means that if you rely on tags to organize your citations, items mistakenly left untagged might be effectively lost from your library. To be fair, Zotero also doesn’t have this capability. This is a crucial shortcoming in both of these tools.

Database and catalog searching: You can search databases and catalogs from within EndNote and Refworks themselves. You cannot do this from within Mendeley (nor Zotero). To compete in this arena the “Import to Mendeley” functionality would need to work with many more databases than it currently does. Thus Mendeley users searching databases and catalogs will either need to use the DB’s own citation export function than import into Mendeley or create citations manually.

Importing references: I used Mendeley’s Zotero Integration tool to bring my Zotero citations into Mendeley desktop. While the citations appear to have mapped correctly, many of of my tags disappeared. This is particularly a problem given the inability in Mendeley to find untagged citations. I suppose I now have to review evey citation one by one to discover which ones are missing tags. What a drag!

Document types: Mendeley has fewer document types available than EndNote, Zotero, and RefWorks, with 20 compared to their 45, 34, and 31 respectively. It is missing such genres as “personal communication,” “grant” “unpublished material,” and “blog post.” While Mendeley does have a “generic” document type, I assume the user would need to manually format any citations with this designation.

Hand-held devices: Mendeley is only available for the iPhone and iPad, which leaves owners of other handhelds out in the cold. As well, the iPhone/iPad apps are “lite,” which means you can only scroll through and view your library, but you can’t sort by tags, nor can you create or manage citations.

The bottom line:
All in all I found Mendeley to offer an interesting set of services for citation creation and management, as well as for sharing resources with groups. I like the fact that it has both an online component as well as a desktop app which permits me to work offline and sync later. Although I’m not working on a collaborative project I can see how the Workgroup functionality would be very useful in that setting. This is a relatively new product under constant development. A look at the Mendeley blog will show that since the beta release in spring 2008, they’ve come a very long way toward making this a serious tool for scholars. (The London-based company is expanding as well; they just opened an office in New York City). The aggregated citation database at the heart of Mendeley will only grow over time (even if you delete your citations from your personal library, the citations remain in the cloud for others to find and use). As the user base grows, this cloud of aggregated citations could become an important destination in itself for scholars searching for references in their field.

Recently I’ve been trying out the various citation management tools mentioned in this post and have found them all wanting in some way. Syncing the desktop EndNote library with the web version is way too complicated (I want to spend my time on research, not on figuring out which version of which library should overwrite the other). RefWorks never seems to work quite right for me. For example, recently, after working correctly for a brief while, RefWorks 2.0 stopped letting me create or save new citations! And Zotero is currently tied to Firefox, though Zotero Standalone Alpha is out now and plugins for Chrome, Safari and IE are due soon. I haven’t tried Zotero Standalone yet but the screenshots look promising.

Zotero is the likeliest tool to give Mendeley a run for its money. Like Mendeley, Zotero supports user profiles, academic networking, citation sharing, and groups. Many scholars will prefer Zotero over Mendeley because it’s an open source tool and has a well-developed and committed community of users and developers. Plus, as a product of the research community (produced by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason) and funding by IMLS and the Mellon Foundation), Zotero has a scholarly lineage that Mendeley, as a for-profit venture, lacks.

Nonetheless, Mendeley still has an edge over Zotero right now in terms of usability, as it offers auto extraction of citation data from documents, the ability parse citations from Google scholar, Google books, and other databases and catalogs, as well as a much better web UI for managing your citation library. Mendeley is developing quickly and their feature development may outpace that of Zotero. For now I’m hedging my bets, they’re both useful tools with interesting roadmaps. If you haven’t already, it’s work checking them both out — and let me know what you think.