Work tips: reference management

At heart, I’m a LaTex geek. This served me well during a number of years of generating pretty reports, and eventually a PhD thesis. I also used it for the occasional beautifully formatted paper submission. However, biology is primarily a collaborative sport, and I also do quite a bit of writing for other people, and sadly I don’t find that the world at large always shares my LaTex feelings. So most of the time, I succumb to the gravitational pull of Microsoft Office. However, one of the more painful parts of this transition has been finding a reference manager that I find as easy to use as BibDesk.

EndNote seems to be a common choice, but unfortunately, the interface just doesn’t make sense to me at all. I managed to import references from specially downloaded citation files, but when it came to anything other that, I was just lost. I missed the nice straight-forward integration with Google Scholar, the interface seemed slow and clunky, and I even seemed to have trouble finding the right search buttons. At the point where I accidentally flooded my library with 2056 articles (all articles ever written by an author named Guttman), I decided there must be another way.

Since I heard people enthusing about it, I thought I’d try Mendeley. And I have to say – within minutes, I was hooked. They already had me on the first screen – “drop your paper PDFs here, and we’ll extract the publication information from them”. And things carried on similarly smoothly from there. Within 5 minutes, I had imported references, attached PDFs, knew how to leave notes in individual papers, and setting up integration with Word took the whole of 2 clicks. A bookmark in my web browser also allows me to import papers as soon as I first find them, and my Mendeley web account means that my references will be synced across different computers. And it’s BibTex compatible too, which means I don’t have to give up my LaTex addiction. It really has all the best features of modern software design – fast, clean, intuitive. And don’t worry, they’re not paying me – the software is free anyway.

I have to say, I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to spend hours and days obtaining the arcane knowledge required to make EndNote do my bidding. Now looking forward to a bright Mendeley future.