Monday, June 01, 2009

It's the Community, Stupid

Tools For some time I've had a sinking feeling that we're not making the best of online reference managers. Jo has been working on this for a while, and a week ago she bullied me into trying Mendeley. My first reaction was, don't like it - overcomplicated, social features I don't want (locations), it's trying to be LinkedIn.

After my initial grumpies subsided, I went on to think in more detail about reference managers. The snag is, they're not there yet. So what do I need in a reference manager?

Free, available online from any browser, moves with me from job to job - bye bye Refworks (commercial), Zotero (Firefox only).

Quick and simple to use. Delicious wins hands down on this score, so it's not surprising so many people use it. The downside of delicious is that it's very generalized and not perfectly suited to bibliographies.

Social features - I want to share and learn from others, not squirrel stuff away on my hard drive. I want to build a group library my colleagues and I can all benefit from. Bye bye Papers.

Which, having discarded the competition, leaves CiteULike. (Sorry Ian :-)
Let's start with the bits I don't like. The auto-import function has failed on everything I've tried except PubMed and PLoS which means lots of tedious typing (not a trivial matter - that's why references don't get maintained). However, I have had success with RIS tags on other sites, so I need to explore this further. In general the CiteULike online documentation is appalling, so I'm learning by trial and error as I go. On the plus side, the user community is active and frequently willing to help with problems.

There's presently no direct way to flag items for collaborators in CiteUlike, but after a day or two I figured out we can use tagging: forusername, e.g. forjobadge. This also gives users an RSS feed they can watch for notifications: The problem with this is that it's potentially open to spamming and at present, these URLs will only return articles that are posted directly from supported websites not those where the metadata is added by hand nor those uploaded via RIS or BibTeX (this is an anti-spam feature). However, Fergus Gallagher sent me an email which hints that a better solution may be available soon - more news on that when we've had chance to play a bit longer.

Earlier Jo tried to get people going via a CiteULike tag, but that didn't work, so we're trying the group approach: eLearning in Leicester (RSS feed). If we wait for someone to do this for us, it's not going to happen, so as with all new technologies at UoL we need to build from the grass roots:

So what about Mendeley? Yes, it has some nice features, but it's more than I need. For me, Mendeley tries to do too much - less is more. The optimum number of reference managers to maintain is one, two I can probably deal with (by increasing my workload) - and I'm not giving up delicious. Three is madness.

It's all about the community. Let's go.