Research management is much more than managing references or bibliographies. It involves the process from having an idea through to publication. There are many steps along the way: searching for the relevant literature, reading and annotating relevant materials, capturing the citations to useful publications, doing original research alone or in collaboration with others, analyzing the results, organizing the ideas, writing with the intent of formal or informal publication, finding the best publication venue, submitting the work in accordance with publisher guidelines, editing until the final work is approved, then finally basking in the warmth of the shiny new publication.
Even in the days before any of this was automated, managing research required discipline and organization. Every time an electronic information revolution happened – first with computers, then personal computers, then the internet, then mobile computing – new tools were added into the mix and they did not always play nice with each other. So the Holy Grail or the One Ring for research management is an integrated software or suite of apps that can manage the entire process from start to finish.
It has taken some time for such tools to come into being, and they are still evolving. In the way of universes and humans, that process of evolution isn’t going to end for the next few millenia, but there are some useful tools already out there. The tools often begin as a tool for a specific purpose, and then the design team decides that it really needs this feature too, and maybe that one. Or a group of designers start fresh by asking what tools an academic researcher needs and writing software that fulfills as many needs as possible. An example of the first is Docear (pronounced, believe it or not, Dogear), which grew out of the academic mind mapping tool Sciplore. At some point the design team decided to start again and create something much more full featured. Colwiz was an example of a design that, since its announcement to the public, offers a suite of tools, accessed from a dashboard, that include reference management, storing and annotating PDFs, managing projects (including calendars and to-do lists for individuals and groups), collaborating with other researchers, and more. Qiqqa (pronounced quicker) is another tool with a robust set of tools that handles reference management, storage and annotation of PDFs, optical character recognition of PDFs which allows searching across one’s library, organizing papers by theme, and other features designed to allow maximum automation of research tasks. It promotes connecting ideas across papers and discovering similar papers, and also has some collaboration features.
Other systems are offering some of the most useful tools, many of which have reference management as their main function. Mendeley is offering an evolving feature set with robust collaboration tools and recommendations of useful papers. It will be interesting to see how the Elsevier acquisition of Mendeley will influence its evolution in the future. Zotero is strong in handling many types of documents in the database of references and has collaboration options. Readcube is excellent at adding valuable information to the PDFs being read. We know that it is still the Wild West out there, with so many tools available which work together well, poorly, or not at all. This is not entirely undesirable, as each researcher has different needs and style of working. However, moving between so many applications creates unnecessary inefficiencies.
So which is the Holy Grail of one software that does everything? Sorry, it just doesn’t exist – yet. Which makes it difficult to advise the new researcher as to which tools to start with. Even for just the reference management component there are a LOT of available products, each of which have unique features and do some things better and some things worse than their competitors. The Wikipedia article Comparison of Reference Management Software is the most complete starting point, comparing around thirty programs. Quite a few librarians have created guides to such software, but the most they discuss is four or five – and they all differ in which ones they cover, whether they provide comparison charts, and which features they list in the charts. Software that must be purchased might be available by site license, of which the most common is EndNote, followed by Refworks. The free programs mentioned most often are Mendeley and Zotero. Other software mentioned occasionally include Papers, Sente, Citavi, and CiteULike.
My personal top two recommendations at this point in time would be Colwiz and Qiqqa (which is very Oxbridge of me since Colwiz was developed in Oxford and Qiqqa in Cambridge). It must be admitted that these recommendations are based on comparisons and reviews (some of which are listed in the Selected Readings section below), not personal working knowledge. I don’t do a lot of the kind of in-depth research that graduate students and faculty typically engage in.
If you are a researcher, try out a couple of the tools mentioned here. Search GradHacker and Profhacker to see if there is a discussion of the tools you are interested in. If you are an academic librarian, look at the Wikipedia article and some other comparisons. and set up Google alerts on the most interesting-looking ones to get a sense of the buzz around that tool. Remember Bamboo DiRT is the most extensive directory of research tools and it plans to add reviews of tools in the future. Perhaps one librarian in your organization could take on the these tasks and share the most important updates with colleagues.
Tame the chaos, my friends.
For Further Exploration and Insight:
Yes, I’m repeating myself…
(2) If you are an academic librarian, look at the Wikipedia article and some other comparisons. and set up Google alerts on the most interesting-looking ones to get a sense of the buzz around that tool.
Note on the selected readings: there are so many library guides to tools, and so many reviews of tools, that it is impossible to include them all. Those chosen are representative, not comprehensive.
Library Guides to Research/Reference Management Software
Citation and Research Management Tools – Guide from the Metropolitan New York Library Council. Guide has comparisons and pages for Zotero, Mendeley, Qiqqa, Refworks, EndNote, BibMe, and EasyBib. BibMe and EasyBib, by the way, were not mentioned above. They are great tools for undergraduates, not as full-featured as the other tools mentioned in this article.
Citation Management Tools – guide from the University of Findlay with a table suggesting a citation tool based on what user wants to do. Suggestions include BibMe, EasyBib, EndNote Web, Mendeley, Qiqqa, and Zotero. Below the table is a list of comparison charts of citation management tools from other research guides.
WizFolio – guide to yet another reference manager with a lot of features.
Childress, D. (2011) Citation Tools in Academic Libraries – “…With an appointed Citation Tools Team, they researched tools and their uses, polled public service librarians and staff, and held workshops and discussion sessions to outline a set of best practices and to assess user, librarian, and staff needs. The result is a set of best practices for supporting, recommending, and teaching tools for the many aspects of citation management.” Publication in RUSQ. Article DOI is 10.5860/rusq.51n2.143.
Steelworthy, M. and Dewan, P. (Vol 8, No 1,2013). Web-based Citation Management Systems: Which One is Best. Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. p. Compares Refworks, Zotero, WizFolio and Mendeley.
Reviews of Specific Tools
Qiqqa – Reference Management System – Mini Review. 2013 article that, despite the name, has a lot of information on Qiqqa’s features and usability. Warning: the top of the page has a lot of irrelevant stuff, scroll down to see the review.
Review of Colwiz – Hicks, A. Collaborative Librarianship 3(3):183-185 (2011). One of the few reviews so far of Colwiz.