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