Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Picking a new reference manager

Around 12 years ago I tried out a new reference management piece of software caled Mendeley.  It is a reference manager, and it keeps a database of papers that I want to keep somewhere to be able to read.  It superseded an unstructured directory of pdf files on my computer, with a hand written html index page, which itself supserseded a pile of printed-out papers in my office.

At one point I was apparently the main user of Mendeley at the University of Surrey, as the Mendeley people actually got in touch with me to ask if I would help spread the word at the University.  (I said no, not because I didn't necessarily want to help either them or my colleagues, but more because I didn't think the model of me giving some kind of presentation to my peers to promote a product was likely to work, and this was, as I remember, what was suggested).

To some extent its function mirrored its predecessor methods, in that they provided a means for me to think that I had done something useful with papers, while not actually reading them.  A bit like how I used to record stuff off the telly onto video without ever actually watching it.  But I actually do read some fraction of the papers I have stored on Mendeley.  I installed a Mendeley app on the Android tablet I have via work, and find being able to read papers on it from my Mendeley library very useful.  

The other useful things in Mendeley are that it will automatically generate Bibtex output for refererencing when writing papers, and that I can create shared groups with other people, so I have (for example) recently set up a shared group with my PhD student and his co-supervisor to have a shared group of papers on interest in his project.  We can all drop papers there when we come across one and then discuss it in our next meeting.

In 2013 Elsevier bought Mendeley.  Since then, it has changed its focus, which has included removing features.  The most recently-removed feature is the removal of the mobile apps, so it no longer works on my tablet (or my phone, where I didn't use it so much as the screen is not so conducive to reading pdfs, but it was still useful there).  In principle, I can access it via the web interface, though not when offline - a situation that is not uncommon with my tablet.  In practice, the web interface is broken in a couple of ways.  Here is what it looks like right now on the desktop computer that I am composing this blogpost on:

It has been saying that since I logged in earlier today.  I suppose I can expect that sort of bug to get fixed at some point.  Here's how it looks on my tablet:

My Mendeley account used to be associated with my University email, but I had to get in touch with them only a few weeks ago to get them to change that, as Elsevier had automatically assigned my University account to an Elsevier-Mendely account that was not linked to my original pre-Elsevier Mendely library.  Still, on the tablet, unless I keep finding the right cookie to delete every time I want to log on, Mendeley will not even let me type in the username/email address I want to use, it will just tell me that "it looks like I am signing on with my Elsevier account".  Sigh.

So, though I can possibly navigate and fix these problems, except for offline reading on mobile devices, I suppose I will be ditching Mendeley.  

A quick search of Twitter, which features a few people complaining about the deleted features, suggests that most people are moving to Zotero.  That looks promising enough, but there are no mobile apps for it.  So... I'm not quite sure what the best way to proceed is.  Right now I think the front runner might just be to copy all my pdfs to a directory on OneDrive and open them from there.  It at least seems to function (not without some annoyances) from everywhere. 

Anyone got any better ideas?

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