Stop Being a Disorganized Researcher With Mendeley Reference Manager

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(note: See the follow up article on the new mendeley features)

The other night my wife, who works in continuing education for optometrists, asked me, “Do you use Zotero?”
“No,” I said. And then, proudly “I use Mendeley!”
“What’s that?”
I went on a 10 minute pro-Mendeley rant that I’m quite sure she wasn’t prepared for!
Though I’m sure it was much more than she ever wanted to know about reference managers, it made me realize just how much Mendeley has changed how I do research.

Are you a disorganized mess when it comes to doing research? I know I was. And it was frustrating! Mendeley has helped me become much more organized and expedited the research process for me.

What’s Mendeley?

Mendeley software is a “free reference manager and PDF organizer,” meaning it organizes your research articles which are directly connected to the research article PDF files on your computer. The program is a standalone application for Windows or Mac. Below, I’ll talk about the benefits.

Research Library: A Life of Chaos

When I was first learning to do research in grad school, our professors would assign us articles and we’d go photocopy the class set (or if we were lucky, the professor would print them out). Journal articles were available online, but professors all seemed to be old school and prefer print copies. So this is how I learned. I soon found myself trying to organize folders upon folders of articles, many of which I thought I’d never need again but was afraid to get rid of. I soon ran out of room. I’d keep piles at home where I’d do most of my work, and others in my office. I’d lug stacks of them back and forth across the hills of Pullman (yes, often in the snow… and yes, both ways since I had to go down a hill then up 1 to get from my house to school), often to find out the one I wanted wasn’t with me causing delays and frustration. My apartment floor was littered with folders and articles. I’d go digging through them, never seeming to find the one I wanted. Can you relate?

Then I began downloading them to my computer. But organization was difficult. I’d try to title the articles so I’d remember them, and place them into folders as best I could. These folders weren’t printable so it seemed impossible to find the article I wanted. I’d open tons of PDFs before getting the right one, wasting valuable time. I couldn’t mark up the articles online, so then I’d end up printing them.

Yes, I’d tried Endnote but the version I had didn’t connect to the articles (or I didn’t understand how to use it), so it was like a Dewey Decimal system and I’d have to go find the article in my “stacks” – a disorganized mess on my computer or a hard copy. I played with Zotero, which was then a Firefox extension and wasn’t happy. I’d all but given up when I discovered Mendeley.

Here is why I love Mendeley. 

Making Research Easier with Mendeley

  1. Auto-exported bibliographies with meta-data: When you add an article to Mendeley, it pulls the article meta data such as article title, authors, journal, etc. This data is now all searchable, sortable, and the citation can be exported in the reference format you desire, such as APA. If it can’t find the data, click ‘search’ and it will try and get the correct data via a Google Scholar search. Saves me tons of time!
  2. Tags and Keywords: I can also add my own meta data. While there are many fields like abstract and notes, my favorite are tags and keywords. When I read an article, I will pull out constructs from the article and enter them as tags. Say, ‘political involvement’ or ‘efficacy’. Now, when I’m working on research and I realize I need something on political efficacy, I do a quick search of Mendeley and find all the articles I have that cover political efficacy. Talk about a time saver! While there are folders, this offers an easier way to find articles as often an article covers multiple subjects.
    mendeley_tags
  3. Drag and Drop Articles / Auto Organization of Articles: Mendeley not only organizes your articles in the application, it also organizes the folders on your hard drive. To see the options, click “preferences” from the menu bar, then the “file organizer” tab (in Mac). It works two ways. 1) You can select folders for Mendeley to scan. Anytime an article is dropped into that folder, it will import it into Mendeley and also name the article as you’ve decided, such as by year – author – journal title. 2) You can take an article from a folder or your desktop and drag it into the Mendeley app. Mendeley automatically imports it, including references, and saves a copy to your designated folder on your hard drive.
    mendeley auto organize folders
  4. PDFs are connected to your references: When you pull a reference up on Mendeley, you’re not just getting the reference and your tags, notes, etc. You are getting the PDF that’s on your hard drive. So it is super easy to access the article.
  5. Markup documents: Once you open the PDF, you can highlight it, add comments, and more. Mendeley saves these markups. No more need to print out the article for markup.
    mendeley highlight article text
  6. synching across computers: No more lugging of articles back and forth or making sure you have the PDF on the right computer. Install Mendeley on multiple computers and your library can be synched between computers (there are data limitations of 2 Gig, but I am not close to reaching them).iPhone / iPad integration – I haven’t used this, but if you need access to your library on the go this is for you!
  7. Private Groups: You can create private groups or join public groups on Mendeley. I have used private groups to have discussions and share articles with colleagues. The online storage feature allows you to upload articles to your group where your colleagues can access them making it very easy to share research articles.

See a full list of Mendeley features.

I haven’t even gotten into the web features of Mendeley. While I don’t use these features as much, they are worth noting. So as not to overwhelm you with my excitement for Mendely, I’ll hold off mention of these for another post.

Ray Aldred sums up how I felt when I discovered Mendeley with this Tweet:

My gosh! Mendeley collaboration, citation and bibliography tool, where have you been all my life?!

— Ray Aldred (@Ray_Aldred) July 9, 2013

I cannot advocate Mendeley enough. I am truly an ambassador for this free service and cannot count the number of times I’ve gotten people to try it. I hope you’ll try it and let me know what you think. What reference management software do you use? Do you recommend it? If you use Mendeley, why do you love it? Other tips and advice do you have for researchers? Have you found it useful

(note: See the follow up article on the new mendeley features)?

images: top: Mendely.com, others: screengrabs

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