As spring rolls into summer, it is time for another appraisal of my digital research ecosystem. For a brief history of my reflections on digital scholarly research, I invite you to take a ride on the Long Road way-back machine circa April 15, 2010, when I first wrote about the elusive quest to close the digital research circle.
Funny how, in that initial post, I thought I was “tantalizingly close” to closing what I called the digital research circle: the ability to gather, curate, annotate, synthesize and cite scholarship without paper using a seamless digital process. More than two years later, I am still close, but now what felt tantalizing has tilted toward the torturous.
I will not here rehearse my entire research ecosystem which involves Dropbox, Evernote, Scrivener and even Word, although I invite you to read through and comment on my posts on the issue of digital research. Instead, I want to focus again on what should be the very heart of that ecosystem: the reference manager.
Thinking that I might finally close the digital research circle by taking the advice of @Targuman and @history_geek, I decided to give Sente a try. After a bit of fun with Sente, after two weeks I am back to my combined Mendeley/Zotero model. Here is why:
The great strength of Sente is its capacity to gather, which itself is a vital part of the research process. When I experienced the way Sente integrated with the Penn State Library, felt the ease by which I could pull pdf files directly from our huge collection of databases and have Sente parse them quickly according to their bibliographic information and place them at my disposal on my desktop and in a beautiful iPad app, I thought I had died and gone to research heaven. Soon I realized, however, that although it does have a rich and responsive support forum, Sente is missing what both Zotero and Mendeley offer: a robust capacity to share and collaborate with a research community.
Although I am in a humanities discipline, collaboration is becoming an increasingly important part of my academic research. (OK, that came off as a bit too as too cynical – dial the cynicism back a notch or two, but you get the point.) Here is link to a post about how I work with a research assistant to do collaborative research in philosophy – it includes an embedded Prezi as a bonus.
Despite Sente’s excellence at gathering, its limited social capacities, its outmoded ways of integrating with the word processor (using in-text citation tags and the need to initiate scans of the document – as opposed to using Applescripts), its clunky search features, and its brutal lethargy on the iPad app with certain kinds of pdf files led me back to the Mendeley/Zotero model.
In the meantime, I solved a duplicating problem I was having in Mendeley when I stopped having Mendeley sync to a folder in Dropbox and allowed it to sync to a local drive on my various machines. When it comes to organizing pdfs in a social research context, Mendeley is the best. It even allows you, for example, to embed your profile into your blog posts:
Mendeley’s capacity to facilitate collaborative research led me to adopt it extensively in my graduate seminar on Aristotle’s De Anima over the spring semester. My graduate students and I shared a collection, and thus were able to refer to the shared highlights, annotations and notes of our various texts together in class. (Above is a picture of me teaching with Mendeley, referring to a document a student had annotated.) Mendeley’s capacities for collaboration enriched our collective research and our seminar discussions throughout the semester.
Mendeley falters, however, at the gathering and the citing phases. They still have not fixed an issue with html code coming into footnotes when using the Chicago Manual of Style Full Note with Bibliography style. Further, the bookmarklet they use to gather document information from the web is … weak: it does not identify bibliographic information on the website and import it directly into Mendeley as Zotero does so beautifully.
Thus, I am forced to continue to use Zotero for the gathering and the citing phases of the process. I really do like Zotero, and especially now that they have a version that stands alone outside of Firefox. But, it does not hold a candle to the pdf managing capacities of Sente or Mendeley.
If, as they say, sometimes you need many sharp tools to get a job done well, still I wish I didn’t need quite so many sharp research tools to close the digital research circle.