Lately, I’ve been exploring different ways in which to create an organising system which can store, manage and document the literature and notes I’ve been reading and writing for the PhD. I work between three different computers, my Macbook Pro (a staple), a Mac Mini (usually when I’m at home) and a Compaq netbook (running Ubuntu netbook remix), which I use on days when I wish to travel light. I needed something that allowed me to a) synchronize, b) store and c) share and d)be searchable. And most importantly, it had to grab my attention during the first attempt, knowing full well that the process of reading and writing for PhD is complicated enough on its own.
At Leicester, we were encouraged to use Refworks or Endnote for a bibliography referencing system. I tried both.
Refworks had the advantage of being online, therefore, as long as I remained a registered student at the University, I could use Refworks on any machine. The problem with Refworks was that it was it was just plain ugly, clumsy and incredibly difficult to maneuver. Sure, there were manuals and support offered by the University – but I wanted something that didn’t need a training course before I could begin using it.
Eventually, I did manage to extract and insert the references I needed into a word document. I even managed to grok exporting references from Refworks to allow them to be imported into Endnote (to come) – but all in all, the notes that I was taking were kept within the references, difficult to search within and it just looked plain ugly. (Which didn’t inspire me to continue organising my notes in this way…)
So Refworks was synchronous – and unless I doing it wrong, not much else. I had to think too much about the process of inputting, rather than the process of writing itself.
Not to be beaten by the referencing software, I left Refworks and moved towards Endnote. I had heard better things about Endnote, but avoided it because I had to ask somebody from ITS to install it on my computer (There goes the multiple computer function). When I left Leicester, I did a bit of *cough*torrenting*cough* and found a mac copy. Unlike Refworks, which was accessed through a website, it ran as software but had a much nicer feel to it as a device to use to manage large quantities of information. It has a clean layout and offers the abilities to search through references in a much more sensible way.
I didn’t mind Endnote, but I didn’t like using a dodgy copy of it. Technically, getting a legal copy would be easy as I am a full time member of a University and all that is required is to speak to relevant bod in my department about signing off a license. However, a glaring problem (for me at least) is about getting it to cross between my three computers.
I could say that I just use one machine – strictly for PhD work, which is easy in theory but not always practical in this household (it’s just the way I work). There is also the issue about backing up data – with online storage, the information is kept in the cloud and therefore automatically “backed up” somewhere else, rather than relying on one machine. With Endnote, although I heard it is possible, I have not had the privilege of trying it out.
I was at the stage where I was still obsessing over database systems, right to the point where I was going to take a visit to Scotland to speak to the IT department about stocking my machine with the latest legal copy of Endnote, when I recommended to try Zotero.
Zotero differs as a reference manager as it is a Firefox plug-in – not a website and not a separate piece of software. The latest release includes the ability to sync your library with the web (you can make this public if you really want for some good old social-referencing) and means that no matter what computer you are on, if you have Zotero installed on Firefox, you can access and work on your library.
Perhaps it is my frazzled twitter-user brain, but anything that allows me to pick up where I left off – from within my browser, on any computer, ticks the box the “easy to use” and “invisible technology” boxes.
Furthermore, Zotero lets you save from library search and link to sources locally, by pointing notes directly to pdfs stored on your system. I took this one further by linking to .pdfs stored on Dropbox, allowing me to access the original source in the same manner – any computer, anywhere*.
In terms of organisation and searchability, Zotero offers the ability to tag each entry, building a tag cloud of entries. There is also the possibility of linking related articles together by selecting them on a menu next to the book title. Lastly, you can group readings into collections and subcollections.
I’ve been using this system for the last six weeks now. So far, so good. I’ve really noticed an improvement in me being able to keep a track of my references. I’ve been able to access Zotero offline on my netbook whilst I am on the trip and type notes from whatever I’ve reading directly into it, knowing it will update as soon as I pick up wifi. It could be said that I’ve been looking for my ideal system since this time last January (when I began reading at Leicester, surprisingly nothing on the computer to show) As this has been constructed purely trial and error, I expect that they’ll be teething problems in the future, but if Zotero continues to evolve and provide web 2.0 solutions to reference management, I will be quite happy to spend the penny to upgrade my account to premium (premium offers more space to store data like notes and screen-grabs on Zotero’s server) and to invest in a larger dropbox to store all the .pdfs that I have used and have yet to use.
I would be interested to hear what others think – has anyone else got any alternative systems that they have been trying out in order to manage their references?
*I’m still debating whether to upgrade my Dropbox account to the maximum 50GB to allow this method to be a permanant system, rather than just for current reading material (need to upgrade local links on Zotero if folder is moved from Dropbox)