What’s Your Collaborative Research Platform?

The hardest part about being an academic ronin is the lack of conversation. People with traditional academic jobs end up talking to friends and colleagues in the hall or at the bar. It is an important stimulant for creative thinking and for providing one with resources one might not otherwise have known about.

“Have you read this article…?”

“There’s this great book by…”

“Let me send you a link to…”

You discuss what you are reading and thinking about, and you get suggestions on what to read and (thusly) think about. 

A few years ago I switched from Endnote to Zotero at the suggestion of several colleagues. Endnote is bibliographic software. It helps people who write long and boring things keep all their sources together. It also helps take some of the manual labor out of footnoting. Endnote costs money. Zotero is free. Endnote was (at the time) only installed on one computer. Zotero was cloud-based. So I switched.

I recently switched again to Mendeley at the suggestion of a friend. At first, I was very excited. Mendeley does bibliographic stuff, but it also adds social networking. It’s like the lovechild of Zotero and Facebook…except it kinda sucks.

That may be putting it too strongly. Mendeley is disappointing. Mendeley is supposed to leverage the power of social networking to help scholars with the discovery and curation of new content. It just doesn’t do that very well.

I have encountered three basic problems with Mendeley. In the first place, it has groups for collaboration (like the glory days of Facebook). The problem is that those groups are sparsely populated. The second is that Mendeley does suggest I follow scholars, but I think a slightly inebriated chicken could make equally strong suggestions. The people I am recommended to follow seem to have little in common with me. This may be why, in the final place, it is equally bad at recommending good articles for me to read. It’s like the algorithm says, “Hey! You study theology? Why don’t you read this introduction to Irenaeus! You’ll love it!” I am sure I will. I loved it the first time I read it. But I’m trying to work on something else right now.

As a cloud-based bibliographic platform, I find some of its features to be slightly better than Zotero. So I will probably keep using it. It is just said that there is this whole other aspect to Mendeley that could be soooo much better. I am disappointed. That’s all. Would some rich benefactor please give those people lots of money so they could hire someone to beef up their “related interests” algorithms. Luce? Lilly? Anyone?

I am curious about the other academic ronin out there. Have you found a citation manager that is better than the three I mentioned? More importantly, is there some alternative to Mendeley that I just don’t know about? Am I using the academic research equivalent to Myspace? If so, please bring me into this decade.


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