The Academic Geek

The literature review project for EDLP 716 required that I seriously start looking at ways to manage “references”—the books, articles, conference proceedings, etc., for my research projects. In my past forays into research, I’d used EndNote and Sente, but then beginning at VCU, I was introduced to RefWorks. What I wanted was a way to catalog articles I found, be able to annotate them, rate them, tag them, and maybe (just maybe) help me cite these resources when I write a paper.

In the middle of all of this, I began considering abandoning Word when I found a nice APA template for Apple Pages. So, in the next few paragraphs, I’m going to give a brief overview of three tools I tried:

The first two are cross-platform, and the third is Macintosh-only. There are also tools for the iPad for Zotero and Papers.

I am going to start with Devon Think, because that is what I ultimately used for our mini literature review project. Time constraints made it the obvious choice, as it was the simplest to begin using. I should start by saying Think isn’t specifically a tool for managing research documents and performing citations in a word processor. Instead, it’s a database for files. It accommodates all types of files, from PDF, RTF, and images. You can tag each of these with keywords, and it also allows you to search within the files.

I’ve used other tools like this in the past to help me organize files on my Macintosh (Leap comes to mind). It might be better used to help organize files around projects of a general nature, not just research projects. It’s power lies in its ability to do things that are impossible to do with the Macintosh Finder.

I had to insert citations in the “notes” section on each PDF. I lost the italics, and while it wasn’t awful, it would have been nice to have a dedicated citation field for each document.

For this project, I had to annotate the PDFs. “Out of the box,” Think offers PDF annotation in the form of highlighting and note-adding. However, certain PDFs I downloaded from various research databases would not allow editing. I had to open these in Preview on my Mac to add annotations, then add the new version of the PDF back into DevonThink. That was frustrating. Marking-up papers should be a hallmark of any tool.

Then again, maybe I was asking DevonThink to be something it just isn’t: a dedicated research assistant for academic writing.

Next, I tried Papers. This is the application I want to like. It feels good, it’s designed well visually, and beyond managing PDFs of articles, it also has support for citations and reference-list building in both Word and Pages. It also has added support for social research through the Livfe service.

Papers beats DevonThink in the annotation department, with a dedicated “notebook” view for notes, and by listing highlights and notes in a sidebar once made within the document. My only issue with this is that annotation “tools” are not displayed as buttons or actual tools; instead, you have to highlight text and either use contextual options to add highlights and notes, or else use the menus to add these.

The ability to review articles is dependent upon the social Livfe service, by giving articles 1-5 stars. I like this concept, but I am not sure how vibrant this service is in terms of participation by other education researchers.

I love the ability to add labels to articles (DevonThink did the same), and the use of a tabbed interface helps keep the onslaught of open windows at bay as you work.

The citation system is a bit odd. You queue a helper application with two presses of the control key to summon a search window for Papers. This allows you to search your article library, insert a citation, and then move on. What it places in your document is a special “code” for the reference. When your paper is complete, you ask Papers to process your paper, and you choose a citation style. Then it goes to work, and the codes are magically changed in a new copy of the document to the correct format. Voilà, at the end of the document is your reference list. I understand why they take this method of using codes: you could take your original document and process multiple versions of your own paper in different formats. But this scheme requires you to maintain multiple copies of your work. Once you edit in the “final” version that’s been processed, you’ve broken the “link” with Papers and you’re on your own. Therefore, you should go back to your copy with the Papers-made codes and edit there, then re-generate a new final version.

Like Zotero (below), the reference list doesn’t re-format the titles of articles with lower-case letters. It’s best to fix that yourself when the references are added to the software, which means you have to know ahead of time which citation style you prefer. (Bummer!)

The thing that made me use DevonThink was the hurdle of how to get papers into Papers. I knew you could drag and drop. But their system starts with you putting in your own name, and it searches the web for your own writings. This was cool, I thought, but how did it know? It primarily seems to be using Google Scholar, which I love. But finding articles with Scholar as a VCU student is tedious. The authentication to “VCU Access” to so many of the research databases doesn’t seem to work (unless I’m missing something by not using VCU proxies, etc.–to be fair, I haven’t tried setting up any library proxies and using Scholar may be easier than I have encountered). In theory, you could use Papers to do all your searching and gathering without having to actually leave its interface. Think about that… that would be awesome. It does in fact work, because Papers includes a “web browser” as part of its package–just be sure to authenticate through VCU first. But the “big search box” paradigm that might work through the JSTOR and Google Scholar databases is smooth like a sports car compared to the clunker of going through multiple pages of the library and database webpages. I can only dream that researching will get easier and more “Googly.”

The last software I tried was Zotero. The software for Mac and PC is free, and it integrates with Microsoft Word and OpenOffice. Zotero is Java-based and includes a plugin for Safari. (It also evidently can run fully within Firefox, if you prefer that browser.) The plugin for me changed when I did sample search. When I landed on a page for a journal, it took on a “folder” appearance, and my guess is that it would suck up all the articles linked on that page. When I drilled-down to one article, where I’d normally have to click on a citation link plus a PDF link, I instead saw the Zotero plugin icon change to a “document” and I clicked it. No feedback was provided. But alas, returning to the Zotero app, the citation was listed and the full PDF was there too. Awesomesauce.

The Word integration wasn’t as smooth as with Papers. The little toolbar worked as advertised, and inserting a citation was basically one more step than with Papers. I was disappointed to see that it didn’t “fix” the citation in the Reference section by taking the capital letters out, as per APA style.

My Conclusion I wanted to love Papers from watching their videos. The base price is $79 and there’s a 40% discount if you can prove you’re a student (in rather creative ways, I might add—see here. Despite being available for Windows and Mac (typically a sign that compromises were made to make the application work nice in both environments), it “feels” like a bonafide Macintosh program that is well-designed and is easy to use. At least from the Mac side, the program looks strong and is responsive.

Zotero is a very strong contender. While visually it can’t compete with Papers, in my quick assessment, it has many of the same features, including notes and tags, and the ability to group research into different folders for different products. It’s price makes it very attractive at $free. And, while I hate to admit it, getting the abstract and citation into the application from my web browser was easier than with Papers. It was one-click. Boom. Done. I love that.

The only reason I might recommend Papers over Zotero is the availability of the companion iOS app for iPad. If you want to read, mark up, and do “research” on your iPad, the app is far more “full-featured” than the available Zotero apps made by third-parties. Personally, about the only thing I’d want to do with research on my iPad is markup PDFs, and I have ways to doing that via Dropbox and Good Reader that would probably work for me. If you have a generous Dropbox account, I bet you could also share your Zotero library across multiple computers.

I think going forward I’ll adopt Zotero and see how it works. If I’m disappointed going forward, I always know there is another strong contender out there in Papers.

Thanks for reading!



Filed under Learning Reflections, Resources

2 responses to “The Academic Geek

  1. adam.smith

    “Like Zotero (below), the reference list doesn’t re-format the titles of articles with lower-case letters. It’s best to fix that yourself when the references are added to the software, which means you have to know ahead of time which citation style you prefer. (Bummer!)”
    No you don’t. Both Zotero and Papers (they use the same citation styles) will convert titles to “title case” (aka headline capitalization, required e.g. in the Chicago Manual) for styles that require it. So saving them in sentence case (the APA requirement) will produce correct results for every style.
    The reason Zotero and Papers don’t auto-convert to sentence case is that it’s not just: “taking the capital letters out, as per APA style.” – APA, and all other similar styles, require proper nouns to be capitalized as they would in a text. And it’s impossible for software to distinguish proper nouns. (think e.g. “The best cook in Cook County”)

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