Citation Management 101 – Mendeley

I’d intended to continue the Citation Management 101 Series with a post on RefWorks, and I will, but I’ve decided to focus first on Mendeley and return to RefWorks later. This is purely for pragmatic reasons; I’ve taken an RA position over the summer with someone who uses Mendeley, so it’s become important for me to learn to use the program quickly. I’m now in the beginning stages of the position so I’m still teaching myself to use it, and I may return and tweak this blog post later with any new insights I gain from using Mendeley more heavily over the summer. For now, I’ll share with you the insights I’ve gained from my research and basic use of the program so far.


I am impressed with how user-friendly Mendeley is – it was easy to sign up and install the program, and the bookmarklet is a very quick install as well. The layout is intuitive and this makes it quite easy to navigate. Additionally, their video tutorials are very clear and comprehensive, and contain all the information needed to get started. This initial ease of use is a major asset for less confident computer users, or those who are strapped for time.


Mendeley is free up to 2GB of storage; for further storage there are charges that vary by plan from $65-$155 per year, and many university libraries, including Western’s, have institutional plans that grant you extra storage space, so check out your library’s offerings. What this means is that if you use the free version your usage needn’t be tied to a particular school, whereas if you need to use the extra storage afforded by your school’s library it may be.


Having reviewed Zotero first, it’s difficult for me not to write this as a comparison of the two, and indeed they have many features in common. They both store and organize your information, retrieve metadata, and generate citations and references. In both cases new users begin by installing a desktop application in a similar fashion and can choose to download additional plug-ins for word processors and web browsers that make the service even more efficient. They are both among the most popular and well reviewed citation management tools.


I wanted to highlight a couple of major differences though. Mendeley stores your data on their servers rather than on your computer; this means they have access to all of your information. It also has many social media features that Zotero doesn’t have. Both of these are potential privacy concerns, though it’s admittedly likely that the average user wouldn’t mind either. I want to emphasize though that, as with all social media, it’s important to check your privacy settings and decide what you’re comfortable with sharing – I wasn’t comfortable with some of the default settings and was able to edit my profile and privacy settings to something I am more comfortable with.


I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Mendeley is owned by Elsevier. Elsevier is an academic publishing company that is well-known among librarians and academics because of controversial business practices. In theory this may not affect the average user, but I raise this as a point here for two reasons: firstly, because Mendeley data is stored on their servers, meaning that Elsevier has access to that information; and second, because by using the program one supports it by contributing to the social media component of the service. Consequently, if you are concerned about ethical business practices – particularly of those who have access to your data – I suggest you look further into the issue and decide your own level of comfort. (I’d recommend starting here. And as always, please don’t hesitate to contact me for help with finding additional resources.) Personally, for these reasons I’m more comfortable using Zotero, but as I’ve said the project I’m working on uses Mendeley, and I’ve been happy to learn to use it in order to teach those who choose it. As I think it’s important to help users find relevant information and let them make decisions for themselves, so I will leave this one up to you, reader!


As always, if you have any thoughts or opinions to share, please do so!


Citation Management 101 – Zotero

Welcome to the first discussion of a resource for my Citation Management 101 series. You can read the introduction to the series here.


I’m kicking off with a discussion of Zotero, because it was the first program I tried. Why? Because a techy, smart professor of mine recommended it. (“Recommended” might not actually be a strong enough word, actually; by the end of her pitch I was almost convinced it was actually magic.)

Zotero is open source, and there seem to be a lot of ways for users to participate in its development. The cool factor here is admittedly high.

A big selling point for librarians is that it is free. In a world where librarians are increasingly asked to do more with less, the fact that they can recommend a good quality resource to users at no cost to their users or to their library is a pretty big win.


Zotero works through a browser extension, a word processer extension, and standalone program. It’s not necessary to download all three of them, but I did, and I recommend it for optimal functioning. Still, though I found them quite simple and fast to install, this initial effort may be enough to dissuade some potential users.

I’ll attempt a brief overview. Zotero allows users to develop a personal library, to which they can save sources – and files – usually with only one click. Once saved, a file can later be accessed offline for reading. These files can then be organized as needed. The handiest part is that Zotero retrieves the metadata (for the uninitiated, this usually includes author, name, and so on – basically everything you need to reference something) from the source. You can do the same for OPAC (library catalogue) entries, extracting information needed to reference books with just one click, and for other websites you might occasionally need to use. Then, from your word processor, you can easily add in text citations or references in an impressive variety of formats.

(You can read about the scads of other more advanced features on their about page. )


This doesn’t always work as seamlessly as it might. A frustrating experience of mine involved discovering that many of the files I was using lacked appropriate metadata, so there was nothing for Zotero to retrieve. Furthermore, there is no way to add metadata to a PDF file on Zotero. This means that you have to create a new entry and then attach your file to it. After I learned how to do this found it to be a fast and easy process, but I had to Google for instructions, and this certainly added to the learning curve and took away from the ease of use and one-click feel to the process. (I really don’t understand why Zotero wouldn’t allow users to add metadata to files – any ideas on this one?)


I think this resource is best suited for users who are inspired enough by its many benefits to push through the learning curve. I suspect most university students fit into this category. It may be less well suited for users who are more easily discouraged (for example, my experience is that users who are less confident in their technological skills are often dissuaded by encountering longer learning curves), impatient, or just short on time in the immediate future.

For librarians and other LIS workers, I suggest warning students about the learning curve when recommending the resource so students are prepared to meet a few roadblocks on their way to Zotero success. And of course experienced help at the reference desk for new users is always valuable.


Zotero’s Quick Start Guide is a valuable resource for instructions for new users. Scroll through the topics and click on each for more information and instructions with pictures.

For those who prefer video tutorials, the Video Tour offered in the above site doesn’t offer straightforward beginner instructions, but rather demonstrates what Zotero can do. Instead absolute Zotero beginners might prefer this video tutorial.


Have you used Zotero? Would you try it? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


And please stay tuned for my next post in this series, on RefWorks.