Online reference management (part 2): going social

December 1st, 2006 by dario

In a previous post I presented some considerations on the impact of online reference management (ORM) tools on one’s productivity. Graph of a Connotea user's items from HubLogI 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.

We already reviewed some potential uses of feeds for academic purposes (read more from shane and jose). In this article I focus on the use of flexible feeds in ORM tools as a strategy to discover recent and valuable references.

Let us start from the basics. The most obvious use of feeds for ORM is to keep track of one’s own items.

Provided you set your reference library as public, you can easily point your favourite feed reader to your library page and retrieve a list of recent items you posted (the RSS link is at the top of the page for Connotea and at the bottom for CiteULike):

Recent additions to your library:

  • CiteULike:[username]
  • Connotea:[username]

But what if you need to track a more specific list of items? The first basic way of filtering content is to retrieve only items categorized with a specific tag.

Recent additions to your library marked with tag perception:

  • CiteULike:[username]/tag/perception
  • Connotea:[username]/tag/perception

A very useful feature in Connotea is the possibility to use some basic Boolean operators to filter items. The AND operator is represented by a + (following a scheme already implemented by, while the OR operator is represented by a / (I find this a less felicitous solution, since slashes are often used to separate hierarchical descriptors that typically cannot be permuted).

Boolean filtering in Connotea:

  • Items from one’s library marked with perception AND action[username]/tag/perception+action
  • Items from one’s library marked with perception OR action[username]/tag/perception/action

CiteULike currently doesn’t support Boolean operators, but it offers the interesting option (not available in Connotea) of filtering by author surname:

Filtering by author in CiteULike:

  • Items from one’s library by Daniel Dennett[username]/author/Dennett

At a large scale and with a sufficient volume of users, this could be a tremendous solution and maybe an even more effective way to monitor an author’s production than subscribing to automatic alerts from institutional bibliographic databases (authors themselves could tag their own preprints or unpublished works and instantly reach out their readership). Sadly, though, as of the current version of CiteULike, filtering by author cannot be combined with filtering by tags to retrieve—say—items by Dennett marked with the tag intentionality, which I think is a major weakness of the system.

Now, assuming other users’ libraries are also public (this is the default configuration), all of the above filters can be applied to feeds from any other individual user or from the community of users as a whole. This is where the social features of ORM tools become priceless.

Suppose you have discovered a researcher working in your field who’s a monster in reference hunting: using ORM tools you can subscribe via feeds to her list of recent items, to a list of her recent items marked with a specific tag or by a specific author. I do this myself with a couple of colleagues to share literature updates, but also with users I have no personal acquaintance with, but I want to keep an eye on because of the good references they have stored in their library :)

This being said, I think that the real social benefits for ORM start when you track items from the whole community. If a specific keyword identifies a hot topic in your field, you can be assured that subscribing to the feed for that tag will deliver to your screen in real time the most recent publications you may ever need to track. The same goes obviously for tag combinations (in Connotea) and for authors (in CiteULike)

Retrieving items from the whole user community

  • Recent items tagged with ecology from any user
  • Recent items tagged with ecology and perception from any user (Connotea only)
  • Recent items by JamesGibson from any user (CiteULike only)

Moreover, checking the number of users who bookmarked a specific item can provide information on the popularity of this item within a specific community, which is often a quite reliable indicator for estimating its impact (and whether or not you should invest time and effort reading it).

If this isn’t enough, both Connotea and CiteULike offer the possibility of exporting any such list of items, howevered filtered (by user, by tag, by tag combination, by author) to your local reference manager in a variety of formats. CiteULike supports EndNote and BibTeX formats, while Connotea offers—on top of EndNote and BibTeX—also RIS and MODS.

My wishlist for the future:

  1. All these services should one day converge on the adoption of a same, unambiguous URI scheme or microformat for filtering content by specific kinds of metadata, so as to make migration from one service to the other painless
  2. all the filtering options provided for feeds should be packed together in a convenient API that allows me (or a specifically designed software) to syndicate the whole reference database for the most byzantine combinations, say, items from a specific list of users that I trust, tagged with a conjunction of two keywords but not containing a third keyword, limited to the last n days.

The day this becomes possible, reference management and reference hunting will probably be a different kind of experience.

Update: Dec 4, 2006

I receive the following feedback from Richard Cameron, the maintainer of CiteULike:

There is actually an undocumented feature of the site which gets you round the following problem:

Sadly, though, as of the current version of CiteULike, filtering by author cannot be combined with filtering by tags to retrieve—say—items by Dennett marked with the tag intentionality, which I think is a major weakness of the system.

You can do this by typing the following into the search box in the top right corner.

+last_name:Dennett +tag:intentionality

The usual RSS, EndNote, etc feeds will work if you follow the links. The implementation is still quite experimental, and the search syntax is a bit ugly (it may change in the future). With those caveats, feel free to use it.

This definitely addresses the issue I raised in my post. Thanks Richard for sharing this and keep up the good work with CiteULike!

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you !

3 Responses to “Online reference management (part 2): going social”

  1. academic productivity » Soft peer review? Social software and distributed scientific evaluation Says:

    [...] Online reference managers are extraordinary productivity tools, but it would be a mistake to take this as their primary interest for the academic community. As it is often the case for social software services, online reference managers are becoming powerful and costless solutions to collect large sets of metadata, in this case collaborative metadata on scientific literature. Taken at the individual level, such metadata (i.e. tags and ratings added by individual users) are hardly of interest, but on a large scale I suspect they will provide information capable of outperforming more traditional evaluation processes in terms of coverage, speed and efficiency. Collaborative metadata cannot offer the same guarantees as standard selection processes (insofar as they do not rely on experts’ reviews and are less immune to biases and manipulations). However, they are an interesting solution for producing evaluative representations of scientific content on a large scale [...]

  2. Academic Productivity » CiteULike upgraded: new team-oriented features Says:

    [...] an online reference manager to share a reference pool among members of a team or project is a brilliant idea, but the previous [...]

  3. Jamie WhiteNo Gravatar Says:

    Dear Dario
    this article that you have presented is one of the most intresting articles that i have yet to read on the internt. your knoweldge and understanding of this topic is obviously widespread and the facts that you have placed in this article are truley outstanding. i am pleased to see that a smart perosn like you is willing to share is information online to the whole of the world.
    if at all posiible would you be so kind as to give me some more links on TIME MANAGMENT TOOLS FOR ACADEMIC PUPORSES. i know that you are a busy man but i thought i would let you know that i am coming to you as i believe that you have the most experince in this topic.
    thanks you so much
    your faithfully
    Jamie White
    p.s do not hesitate to respond to this.

Leave a Reply