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Using Mendeley for Research Management

Mendeley desktopOne of the goals of ProfHacker is to experiment with new things and share our results, in the hopes that our experiences—whether positive or negative for us—may be useful to others. To that end, we might step out of our comfort zones and work with software (or processes or pedagogy) that we might not otherwise try. If you think about it, such a move can only ever be positive in the long run—either we learn something new and exciting and improve our workflow or we gain perspective on what it is about the status quo that we like so much.

Mendeley logoSuch is the case here; when I said I was going to write a post on Mendeley, the cross-platform desktop and web-based research management tool, everyone said “You? Who wears your Zotero jacket everywhere you go?” Hey, what I can I say? I wanted to see what all the hype was about.

Before I continue, let me just say that this post is in no way a Mendeley vs. Zotero smackdown. While I firmly believe such a post is in my future, this isn’t it. Consider this a brief introduction to some of the key features of Mendeley and an invitation for new or existing users to discuss the tool in the comments section.

“With Mendeley, research papers get scrobbled”

This heading is the title of a Wired UK post on Mendeley. The verb “to scrobble” was coined by the music service Last.fm, and it means “to automatically add the tracks you play to your Last.fm profile with a piece of software called a Scrobbler.” When the music you play is scrobbled, it is added to your profile which in turn allows the Last.fm service to generate personal “top music” charts, to provide recommendations based on the music you listen to the most, and to connect you to like-minded listeners among the Last.fm community.

Now, why on earth is that important?

Because if you look at the Mendeley “About Us” page, you’ll notice that most of the minds behind Mendeley were responsible for Last.fm, and the Last.fm/scrobbling/community concept is exactly what they’ve brought to Mendeley. [They say so on YouTube, so it must be true.]

As a Last.fm user [who had to stop because I was using it almost too much] and an academic, conceptually this was really appealling. Then I realized that people in my field were not really part of the Mendeley community; the special value-added of this particular tool unfortunately does not reflect my reality. But, if it did, I can easily see how this is a valuable tool because it already handles the basics just about as well as the tool I do use.

Key Features

The key features of Mendeley are roughly organized into three categories:

  • Organize: indexes and organizes your PDF (and other) documents into a bibliography, all the while gathering details and building an index that then allows you to search, custom categorize, and cite from these materials. In addition to drag-and drop functionality, the Mendeley Web Importer and COinS support allow you to quickly access and import documents from other resources (see list at the site). Again, here your mileage may vary as to usefulness, depending on your field. Once you have your documents in Mendeley, you can read, search, annotate, and highlight within the integrated PDF viewer; this is why Mendeley was mentioned by users and reported in Ryan Cordell’s post How Do You Organize and Annotate PDFs? (Reader Response Roundup).
  • Share: at its core, Mendeley is a social network; you can create groups, invite friends (fellow researchers), and stay up to date on what people are reading (or, at least, what they’ve added to Mendeley). Again, this assumes that people in your field are actually using it. Currently, Mendeley users tend to be in the sciences.
  • Discover: going hand in hand with the social/sharing aspects is the discover network—or the potential for one. You can “navigate the web of knowledge” and view the most read authors, journals, and publications within your field or other fields, as tags and other keywords are extracted by the items in users’ libraries.

Fundamentally, Mendeley is a bibliographic database, like EndNote, Zotero, and others. It does what you expect of such software: store, organize, sync your research, allow you to annotate it, make it available for export and other uses. It includes plugins for Microsoft Word and OpenOffice so you can cite while you write and generate bibliographies when you’re through.

The “extra” or value-added features of Mendeley compared to other tools includes the collaboration aspects and the research trends both within your library and your field as a whole.

Intrigued? Read more.

Technical Notes

There are two pieces to the Mendeley system: the desktop software and the cloud-based storage. You can download and install Mendeley Desktop for free—it is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux—and use it simply as a single-machine/local document manager. However, to gain access to the collaborative tools (and to backup your data) you must also have an account with Mendeley Web. The basic account is free but there are upgrade options depending on storage space and number of shared collections.

What About You?

What I’ve learned in my brief time with Mendeley is that it isn’t for me, primarily because the community aspects aren’t there in my field [I do realize that I could begin to change that by being part of it] and the software I use works just fine for me. However, I can easily see why so many people find Mendeley useful.

I will note that the “Import from Zotero” feature worked seamlessly; I seeded my Mendeley account with all of my Zotero data so I would have something to work with as I worked through the tool. Given the syncing abilities, it would be possible (and not terribly difficult or time consuming) to, say, work with Zotero as your primary tool yet sync with Mendeley so as to increase the content in your field and just add to the community in general. If you’re looking to try Mendeley and you already have a Zotero account, I recommend importing your library in this way and playing around with the data you’ve already collected.

What about you? Do you use Mendeley? If so, what are the features you find most appealling? Let us know in the comments, and please identify your discipline, as I think that matters in this case.

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