Online reference management (part 1): Availability

October 3rd, 2006 by dario

Externalization. Distributing workload across a number of nifty, personalized Web-services: that’s the mantra of Web 2.0 advocates. Although I tend to be quite skeptical about this kind of marketing, there are a few cases in which a Web-based tool can radically change one’s work habits. In the case of academic work, online reference management is one of these happy exceptions.

This post is the first in a series advocating in favor of free online reference management services (such as CiteULike or Connotea) as solutions that are likely to substantially improve one’s productivity (whether or not you qualify as a geek).

In a world where connectivity is becoming ubiquitous, online reference management offers one of the same benefits (and risks, as I’ll argue later) of using a debit card instead of carrying cash in your pocket: availability.

Think of the advantages of having your own up-to-date, self-annotated reference library available anytime and anywhere.

  • You work together with your co-author on his PC and you don’t need to switch to your computer anytime you need to retrieve a reference.
  • Your laptop battery is empty and you forgot your power adapter, you can keep working on any machine with an internet connection.
  • You are at a conference and someone asks you about an important reference you have recently read.
  • Your computer crashes and you don’t have a full and up-to-date backup of your reference database.

In all of these scenarios, using an online reference manager is likely to make your life easier. My former supervisor, who enjoys making fun of geeky solutions, defined these tools as a godsend, especially if one is often on the move as he is.

Online availability has its costs. The main risk of depending on a Web-based tool for one’s daily routine is probably that of being trapped. Before putting any effort into a Web-based productivity tool, always check that:

  • you can opt out without much hassle;
  • the service is stable enough and is not temporarily unavailable for maintenance every 48 hours;
  • your data are not locked-in in a format that becomes unusable as soon as you decide to switch to another service (i.e. check if you can easily export all your data).

And obviously, make sure you have a connection available anytime you plan to use your online reference library ;)

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you !

10 Responses to “Online reference management (part 1): Availability”

  1. ShaneNo Gravatar Says:

    Do you think people use these tools in preference to endnote et al, or in addition? I have a citeulike library, but I think you need both – though endnote/reference manager’s microsoft WORD tool can be glitchy it is still pretty useful, and though online systems have their uses in collecting references you need to do something with them – e.g. export to endnote.

  2. darioNo Gravatar Says:

    I use an online reference manager (CiteULike) on top of my local reference manager (BibDesk). I copy a reference to my local reference base as soon as I’ve read it: using CiteULike+BibDesk it’s just a matter of copying the bibtex definition from the reference page and paste it on the BibDesk window. But you are right: the next big thing in the area of online reference management is synchronization (tools to keep your local and remote libraries mutually updated) or the development of plugins allowing you to syndicate and use your remote library from within your local productivity applications.

  3. RobNo Gravatar Says:

    dario talks about syncing as the next big thing. But are there currently not online reference managers that allow for syncronization (like importing/exporting a complete database) to/from Endnote?

    If there are, please name’em!

  4. darioNo Gravatar Says:


    the way I see it, syncing and importing/exporting really are two different things. You don’t want to overwrite your whole local reference library anytime you have a new item in your online library. As a registered user you can dump your whole CiteULike library in Endnote format. Most reference managers allow you to import/export to/from Endnote (as well as many other formats). But dumping a library is more useful for security backups than for updates, that’s why I still look forward to real synchronization support. My 2 cents…

  5. atom probeNo Gravatar Says:

    To reap the benefits of having an online bibliography without becoming “trapped,” I run my own web-based reference manager. I use refbase. This not only allows me to dump to BibTeX/Endnote/ (depending on what I’m writing a paper in), but it also allows me to know and have access to every bit of information that I’ve stored in the database.

    If you aren’t hosting your own reference manager, you should definitely check how good the export of information is: most of the webapps have Endnote and/or BibTeX export, but some don’t export all data!

  6. darioNo Gravatar Says:

    atom probe,

    I agree that hosting your own reference manager is — as a general rule — the best way to keep you hands on your data. But for users who (1) don’t have the technical skills to do this or (2) don’t have access to a server or (3) just don’t want to bother with software installation, both CiteULike and Connotea are excellent solutions. I confirm that both allow exporting the full library or a subset of your references in multiple formats.

  7. Mark GrimshawNo Gravatar Says:

    One of the things you haven’t mentioned in terms of availability is the ability to share a bibliography with a (possibly globally-dispersed) research team.

    also, as atom probe suggests, there are two forms of on-line reference managers both using centralized server solutions. The first, citeulike etc. you have little control over and, as you say, do indeed run the risk of becoming trapped. The second, the server and its all important data is in your hands (or your institutional technical support if a shared resource) and these are applications like refbase and WIKINDX.

    re. the use of plug-ins for importing/accessing bibliographic data into external ‘productivity’ software (presumably word processors), why not go for an all-in-one solution such as WIKINDX (my program)? Rather than messing about with plug-ins, compatibility issues etc., WIKINDX integrates a WYSIWYG word processor capable of Rich Text Format output in which references and quotes, paraphrases etc. can be inserted direct from the database (no more re-typing of long quotes). Bibliographies are automatically generated and citations automatically formatted (footnote, endnote or in-text styles — including context-sensitive citation formatting).

  8. academic productivity » Online reference management (part 2): going social Says:

    [...] In a previous post I presented some considerations on the impact of online reference management (ORM) tools on one’s productivity. I haven’t mentioned yet another major advantage of using social software for managing references: the possibility of using dynamically generated feeds to track things you are interested in. [...]

  9. RuTempleNo Gravatar Says:

    Rob asks, But are there currently not online reference managers that allow for syncronization (like importing/exporting a complete database) to/from Endnote?

    Yes, in fact there are:

    RefWorks, which also has a tool for embedding your citations in your proper format into a Word document, and is supported by countless academic electronic references (see that export to RefWorks button in FirstSearch and PsychInfo, f’rinstance?).

    The open source WikiNDX may also suit some folks’ needs, having some interesting note-taking and aggregating capabilities.

    It’s all about what tools work for you.

  10. Branner Blog » Blog Archive » Summertime citation management Says:

    [...] enjoyed posts from Academic Productivity about reference management tools, and specifically on online reference management and its convergence with social networking tools. I recommend them, and the blog in general, if you’re interested in these [...]

Leave a Reply