The following is a guest post from Ben over at Literature Review HQ.
I used a BiBTeX file, with every reference added manually. Possibly not the fastest, but it meant I knew exactly where everything was and what information was included. Anyway, over to Ben…
What is the best reference manager?
I get asked this a lot. It’s a fair question and I’ve wondered it before. I’ve tested many reference managers and I’ve heard countless opinions from others about a huge array of software. So which is it? Which reference manager beats all the others? If you were starting a writing project today, which reference manager should you choose?
It DOESN’T matter
Sorry if that’s not the answer you wanted but it doesn’t and it shouldn’t matter. Asking the question “which reference manager should I use” is a huge red herring. A definitive answer to this question implies that there is a reference manager out there that will solve all your referencing problems. Frankly, there just isn’t. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem with the reference management software either (or at least they’re not entirely to blame). It’s all about the user. It’s about you and it’s about me.
Reference managers are tools and they are prone to errors, bugs, crashes and the rest. Some are better than others, but you can circumvent all of the problems with some careful usage and a bit of caution.
The reference manager is a tool but YOU are in charge
If you are a chef, the reference manager is your knife. It’s a useful and very important instrument. People surely have their favourites but in reality, there are a great number that will do the job very well. However, what happens if you put a good quality, sharp knife in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it properly? Or someone who hasn’t been safety trained?
The answer is that you end up with a few fingertips in your food (or the literature review equivalent). The knife is important, but it depends how you hold it, how you move it, where you put the food and most importantly where you put your fingers.
Ok so you’re not going to get your fingers chopped of, but reference managers can be dangerous
- They can crash, taking ALL your data with them
- They may not be compatible with your word processor
- They may not format your references in the right way
- They may not be compatible with your literature database
- You can link pdfs to references, but you can only access them via the reference manager. What if you need to change or reset your software? Sorry, you can’t find the pdf’s anymore!
So how do you protect yourself from your reference manager?
A simple measure is to always backup your library in a universal format. I back up my reference library in a .ris format and as a BibTeX file. Together these file types can be used by most reference managers. This means that if something bad happens you can simply transfer your library to a completely new software. Back up your library often and you’ll be ready to switch at the drop of a hat if it is needed.
Another measure is to always save pdf’s of articles with a file name that makes sense and is searchable. I always include the year of publication, the authors name and the journal title. This means that even without the reference manager, you can still tell which pdf is which. Yes this is more time consuming but it also makes you think more carefully about which references to include in you bibliography. A considered approach from the onset is much better than a “reference now, ask questions later” mindset.
Using these two simple methods, I have managed to change between reference managers with practically no disruption. It’s a good exercise even if you don’t want to change. It makes you realise how simple it is to change and how you aren’t reliant on one particular reference manager.
At the end of the day, some people use the same reference manager for their whole career. They look after it. The software works for them and they are happy. Other people like to change, try new technology and see if there is something better out there. Both these approaches are fine. The most important thing is that you always back up your information and keep it safe and accessible independently of the software you currently use. Hopefully the worst will never happen, but if you don’t back up it could cause you a serious headache in the future.
Some good “knives” that I’ve used
- Endnote is pretty good for citations and ubiquitous
- Mendeley for finding new articles
- Papers for finding papers and citations
- Zotero handy browser integration
- Qiqqa useful built in OCR software
- JabRef basic but reliable
What do you use, and why? Leave a comment below…
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