Saturday, 31 July 2010

Thing 18: "They may pass for excellent men"

Zotero and Mendeley sound to me like the heroes or villians from a swashbuckling film. It's a shame that the truth is so much more prosaic; who wouldn't want a bit of swash on a Saturday afternoon?
Arrrgh! | Pirates by Joriel "Joz" Jimenez on Flickr

Reference management tools was possibly the topic I was looking forward to most in Cam23.  Not only because I'm the sort of boring person who thinks that bibliographies are fun, but also because I've recently agreed to compile lists of recent publications of interest for a quarterly academic journal.  This new responsibility has forced me to realise that now is probably the time to embrace technology and to reject lovingly hand-written references. Without Cam23 to spur me on, I'd probably still not have made the switch, so thanks you to the team.

But nothing is simple, is it?  I'm a make-do-and-mend sort of girl at heart, and my computing resources are a tad limited.  No laptop.  No smart phone.  At home - one six-(and-a-bit-)year-old PC running Windows and Office 2000; one communal linux-running box that I don't much understand.  Elsewhere - modern, fast PC at work, but no admin rights so ability to download and add-on somewhat hit and miss; my chap's moderately modern laptop; UL Digital Resources Area computers, which don't have Firefox, and on which customisation almost prohibitively restricted (no bookmarks toolbars, even, so far as I can see).

So I need a pretty specific set of functions in an ideal reference management programme:
  1. database of references should be storable and accessible online, to allow for working from multiple machines.
  2. should work with windows and linux, IE and Firefox, and Very Old Word.
  3. must be able to export in MHRA style.
  4. should be able to deal with obscure journals and references, even if only by manual addition of citations.
  5. That's pretty much it.  Can't be too hard, can it?
Initial reading suggested that Mendeley had web storage options, and that Zotero didn't, but a very helpful Latinamericanist informed us over at Miss Crail's pad that Zotero can now do this too.  So, to see what, if anything, was going to meet my needs, I've conducted an afternoon trial of both.

And here, as they say, are the results:
Criterion MendeleyZotero
1. database storable and accessible online Yes, but 'Mendeley desktop' required to create citations (desktop can be synched with web). Yes, but citations generated from within Firefox plugin (library on individual machines can be synched with web).
2.1 windows and linux OK, so I've not tried either on linux: I might be brave, but I'm not stupid.
2.2 IE and Firefox Yes. 'Import to Mendeley' bookmarklet saves to bookmarks/favourites either menu or toolbar, 'in every browser'. No. Firefox add-on only.
2.3 Very Old Word No, plugin only compatabile with Word 2003 and 2007. There is option to copy a citation to the clipboard (and then paste it wherever you like), but I can't work out how to change the style of this citation.  Help documentation only refers to changing style from within the Word pluigin. Not necessary. Can create bibliographies of multiple citations in any available style in RTF and other formats (including copied to clipboard) directly from browser.
3. MHRA style Technically, yes. Practically, not that I can figure out (see 2.3). Yes.
4. obscure references Smaller range of recognised websites than Zotero. Manual entry available online and on desktop . Larger range of recognised websites than Mendeley. Manual entry only possible from add-on, not online.

It would seem that in an ideal world, Zotero would be the tool of choice for my particular need.  The Firefox add-on was pretty painless to install, Zotero seems to extract information from more websites that Mendeley (so far as I could see), and it will actuall produce the bibliography I want on my own computer at home.

But, I can't use it from the UL.  This is a big sticking point (and I'll be emailing the UL shortly to find out why no Firefox in the DRA).  It looks like I shall have to keep two accounts - Mendeley for the UL and anywhere else without Firefox, or where I can't install the Zotero add-on, and then Zotero at home for actually compliling bibliographies.  Importing and exporting articles between Mendeley and Zotero in .ris format has worked well enough in my trails so far.  This isn't an ideal solution, but might be better than writing all down (or cutting and pasting) by hand, if only for the auto-formatting.

If you're reading this, and you know more about these tools than I do, and you've noticed any errors in what I've written, I'd really love to hear from you.  I'm planning to go to Monday's drop in around lunchtime, or you can just post a comment below.


  1. Just wondered about those institutions or individuals who use macs, how do these resources cope on safari?

  2. Wow! Speedy commenting, Suzan. No idea about your question (maybe someone else will...) I think I did notice a 'not yet supported in Macs' somewhere in the Mendeley docs, possibly regarding word processor plugins. I should imagine that the Mendeley bookmarklet would work in Safari, but that's not so much use on its own because of needing the desktop, too.

    There was a third option mentioned at Cam23 - Bookends - which they say is for Macs.

  3. Hi, I'm Wiliam Gunn, academic community liaison for Mendeley. I sympathize with your problems dealing with restrictive computer policies and older hardware, and we're constantly getting requests for ways to work around these problems. NHS researchers, for example, tend to struggle with these policies.

    One thing that has worked well for some people using Mendeley but not able to install the desktop is to use citeulike to add items to their library and the sync feature to make the library available on your desktop.

    If you'd like to email they can help you with the specific bibliography formatting and generation problem.

  4. GirlintheMoon strikes again! Great rapid response team Mendeley have.

    I did write a comment but it seems to have disappeared into the ether so just to repeat - marvellous. Pirates, scientific methodology, great stuff.

  5. This is marvellous, Girlinthe, you put me to shame! From the pirates to the detailed comparison table, I love your scientific method when approach the Things.

    I know nothing that will help answer your questions but am sure someone can and, failing that, hopefully you can get some help with it at the UL

  6. Gah, weird double post of comments written 15 mins apart...

  7. Hi again.
    Both Mendeley and Zotero work under Mac and Linux.
    I can attest that Zotero does so very stably under linux (and is mostly developed on Mac, so I'd assume there, too). Haven't used Mendeley enough to say.

    Also, the Zotero Word plugin is compatible with Word 2000.

    The lack of ability to enter data online is a bit of a bummer, though. I understand that there are plans to significantly ramp up the online capabilities, but there is no way of telling when that's going to happen.

  8. and good idea by Mr. Gunn on using citeulike as a workaround when you're in a situation where you can't install software. Obviously that works with both Zotero and Mendeley - the former, rather than having an automatic sync feature, puts one of the little folder icons in your URL bar (although I guess it's two clicks either way).

  9. Hello GirlintheMoon

    Some possible solutions that may or may not work with your particular set of computer circumstances.

    These are all Zotero centric as I love it and think it's the most brilliant tool, I've been using it for years and keep discovering more and more about it – or maybe they just keep adding more and more.
    First possibility is to use the rss feeds from your library – log in to Zotero, go the My Library and then use the feeds to import and export your references from one machine to another. Each collection (folder) has it's own individual feed. This may be a brilliant idea or it may not, as I've never used the rss feature for something like that.
    Second thing you could do is get a 1 or 2 gig memory stick and go to and download portable Firefox, add the Zotero plug in and there you have it. There are two potential issues there – first is that the portableapps version of Firefox will only run on windows (there is a portable version of Firefox for Ubuntu but I think this may be getting a little too complicated), and the second problem is that the ULDRA may very well prohibit the use of usbs. And as far as I can understand things the UL set up seems to be your main sticking point.
    Also re-lack of admin rights on your work computer, if you do have Firefox on that one then you should be able to install Zotero, as it's just a plug in and not a .exe file trying to install itself on the Windows system.
    Do get in touch if you'd like.


  10. Great research GiM [might have known you'd have a go, as a tinkerer. Wish I was...] and some great info in the comments too, though they are still indication that none of the options works without tweaks. I did raise my eyebrows at the fact that Zotero, which is pushed [or maybe nudged a bit] by the UL, is not available because no Firefox. I am absorbing all this with interest anyway

  11. Hello everyone. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

    @Celine the pirates were just an afterthought, really. I thought it needed some livening up!

    @Mr Gunn. Thank you for coming by and helping out. I'll email support@mendeley about how to change citation styles without using the Word plugin. Citeulike looks and sounds interesting, but it's still using a second (or third) programme. As I've had success (or luck) so far transferring between Zotero and Mendeley, I might stick with just two new accounts for the time being, and see how that works out in the longer term.

    @Latinamericanist Thanks for the information about running under Linux. It's probably unfair to say that you have to be stupid to try it, but there's only so much new stuff I can cope with on one day, and I thought that might be my limit! And thanks for the info about the Zotero Word plugin - I didn't get as far as trying it out, because the 'copy to clipboard' feature worked just how I wanted it to for my current purposes.

    @Sarah. RSS sound like an interesting work around, but I seem to be working the Zotero synch feature OK right now. The idea of running portable Firefox is ver appealing, although I'll have to pop out and get a bigger usb stick first. The UL does allow usb sticks for storing and accessing data, although I don't know about running .exe files from them. Given their other levels of security, they ought to have restricted that, but we'll see, and we'll see what they say about Firefox in general. (It may be that it's there and I've missed it...)

    @Miss Crail. The research had to be thorough like that - otherwise I'd never have remembered what could do what (I was really hoping that it would be a clear decision, but alas...!).

  12. Girl in the Moon, just to clarify, portable Firefox is not an exe file, you download it on to your memory stick, as an exe file, install it there and the you can delete the original download exe. I've used it on our own machines which have similar sounding restriction to the ULDRA, so it should work.

  13. @esclib. Me and my big assumptions! That's sounds v. v. useful, then (I guess Firefox have heard from lots of people who can't download software to their machines but want to run Firefox). Thanks again.

  14. You've done it again Girl in the Moon--congratulations! This is a really great post and the comments are fascinating. Looking forward to tackling Zotero now.

  15. @Helen. Thanks.

    @everyone News Just In: apparently the DRA may be undergoing an upgrade 'over the summer', so I've registered that I'd like Firefox to be added to the PCs. Other suggestions were to use my own laptop (I didn't actually mention in my email that I don't have one, but equally, it was a DRA question...) or to use Endnote as a half-way house.

  16. I should have been more clear, above.

    Mendeley will work on all major computing platforms, PC, Mac, or Linux. It doesn't matter what browser you use. We're also working on developing a portable Mendeley for use from USB drives.

    I mentioned citeulike as a possible replacement for Zotero, because it's a pure webapp, so it again doesn't matter which browser you're using, and there's no software installation required.

    What I would do, then, is to have Mendeley running on your home computer or any that you can install software to, then use citeulike only in those cases where restrictive policies prevent you from installing software.

  17. One of the great things about Zotero over say Endnote is that Humanities students using the cite-while-you-write facility can actually create footnotes that are instantly editable. Last time I played with Endnote was increasingly frustrated as students expect their footnotes to be editable. Haven't tried footnotes with Mendeley tho' Isla has made it work but note with interest your attempt to use MHRA with it.

  18. I'll let you know about Mendeley and MHRA citation when I hear back from their support team. I imagine that it works fine if you can use the Word plugin...

  19. I've had a reply from the nice people at Mendeley, who say that:

    "You should be able to select the citation style by using the: 'View' -> 'Citation Style' drop-down option in Mendeley Desktop.

    To check how the citations will be formatted without having to copy and paste them
    into a document, you can also toggle the Mendeley Desktop library view to the:
    'View' -> 'Library as Citations' option."

    I've just managed to install Mendeley Desktop at work (!!!), and this advice works perfectly.

  20. I don't know if anyone's still following these comments, but on the off chance that Latinamericanist (or anyone else with the knowledge) is out there - I have a query regarding capitalisation. MHRA style demands that book and article titles Have Each Significant Word capitalised, but many of the records that I've imported (especially from library catalogues) have only the First word capitalised. Zotero doesn't seem to be changing these in citations - is that something I'll have to do myself?

  21. oh - hi - got back here by accident - in the future don't be shy to ask on the Zotero forum.
    This can (and should) be coded into the MHRA style. We actually recommend to keep your data in sentence case (because it's much easier to convert from sentence-->title than the other way around. I'll try to remember to let you know when this is done.

  22. done. You'll have to manually update your MHRA style.
    Go to the Zotero styles page

    You'll have to find the MHRA style that's _not_ on top of the page, but alphabetically sorted in the long list of additional styles (the styles on top are "shipped" with the program, so they are checked more thoroughly before updates are implemented).

    Btw. the silly MHRA guidelines want you to capitalize English titles, but not, e.g. French titles. Sometimes you have to wonder who comes up with these...

  23. Wow - thank you Latinamericanist, that's very helpful indeed. I'll venture into the Zotero forums with future questions.