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Evolving Digital Research Ecosystem

Final Edits

Originally uploaded by cplong11

In the months since my last posts on using Mendeley, Zotero and the iPad for academic research, my experience has been more fully informed by practice. This fall I was able to research, develop and write an essay on Plato’s Apology for a talk and seminar I will be giving in Bogata, Columbia at the Universidad de los Andes.

The practice of doing research under extreme time constraints as I taught a 400-level course on Critical Theory and served as Associate Dean brought a number of important affordances and limitations of digital research into sharper relief for me.
For those who are uninterested in the details, my general experience is that while the iPad, Mendeley and Zotero continue to evolve in the right direction, there remains as yet no simple solution that will close the research circle of which I spoke last spring. And yet, the evolution of these tools – particularly improvements to the iPad’s ability to handle pdf files stored in Dropbox and Mendeley‘s strong move toward mobile computing – has brought me closer to that vision.
For those of you who would like to hear some of the details about how I am using digital media to do academic research more efficiently and effectively, here they are:

Desktop Literacies

Originally uploaded by cplong11
First, sharing reference collections on both Mendeley and Zotero has become integral to my work. My research assistant, Sabrina Aggelton, is able to locate, identify and organize articles and books related to my work into our shared collection where the texts themselves are immediately accessible to me. This allows me to make the most effective use of the often very limited research time I have. When I do have time blocked off, I can focus immediately on the texts most relevant to my project. Because Mendeley organizes pdf files so well into files on Dropbox for me, I have used the shared collections on Mendeley rather than Zotero for this purpose.
Second, integration of pdf files with the iPad is much improved over the past few months.  Although Mendeley itself has an iPad/iPhone app, the application remains rather limited with respect to annotation, file transfer and even reading files on the iPad. I prefer to use Mendeley to organize my pdf files onto Dropbox, and then GoodReader with Dropbox integration to annotate and Evernote to take notes on the text. I often find myself reading via GoodReader on the iPad and taking notes on my laptop via Evernote.  I have even been known to use Evernote on the iPhone when reading articles on the iPad, if I am on the go. This is not an integrated solution, but I find that having all my notes accessible and searchable in Evernote works fairly well.
Third, Mendeley is unable yet to compete with Zotero in terms of its integration with Word processors for citation styles. Mendeley does not yet support footnote citations in the Chicago Manual Style (my preferred method), so I return to Zotero when writing. This means that I need to continue to make sure that references added to Mendeley are entered in Zotero.  Mendeley is able to read Zotero databases and display and organize pdf files from Zotero, but Zotero does not yet play with Mendeley in the opposite direction. Happily, it is extremely easy to add references to Zotero from the web, but still, this is an extra step when entering references. 
I would like to consolidate all my references into a single program if possible. A few months ago, I thought that program would be Mendeley, but the announcement of Zotero Everywhere makes me think that Zotero might yet win that battle. Mendeley is ahead of Zotero in iPhone/iPad development and pdf file organization, Zotero ahead in terms of citation integration with Word processing. The future of Zotero depends upon its development of a stand alone desktop app and integration into web browsers beyond Firefox. It will also need to develop a software solution for mobile devices. I am not sure, however, that it sees itself as a pdf organizing program, so in this regard Mendeley may have the advantage.
As I reflect upon the state of my digital research ecosystem, I am encouraged by the increasing ease by which scholarship can be accessed and organized online. Not only do I have access to a huge number of digital resources through Penn State’s excellent library, I also use Google Books and to access and gather references from hundreds of thousands of books. Happily, as I move further into my own administrative work, the resources that facilitate the academic research that remains of central importance to me continue to improve. They have, however, yet to mature to their full potential. 


  • Mies Martin says:

    Wonderful posting. As a librarian and part time student I’m interested ways how the digital environment changes research, particularly in terms of the Humanities. One question I have pertains the the differences between Mendeley and Zotero. I believe that Zotero offers community functionality. Have you tried using it?

  • Christopher P. Long says:

    Thanks, Mies, for your comment here. Yes, Zotero has the ability to share collections and PDF files with others in a group. This it does very well.
    What Zotero does not do is organize the PDF files in a coherent way in a local directory. Mendeley does for your PDF files what iTunes does for your music files. It makes it easier to handle all the PDF files you gather in the course of your research. Mendeley too allows for sharing and is free to a limit. I have Mendeley store my PDF files on Dropbox, so I have them in the cloud and accessible everywhere from multiple devices.

  • Cole says:

    Chris, this is a great post! I wonder if this is something you might want to share at an eEd meeting this spring? Might be really helpful for people to see how you manage this process.

  • Christopher P. Long says:

    Cole, thanks for reading. Yes, I would be happy to talk to eEd about this. I also think we need to find a venue for faculty to hear more about how these technologies can help them with their research.

  • Mr. Gunn says:

    Hi Chris! As you know, the work on the word processor plugins is ongoing, with a major redesign coming in a week or so. You can take an early look at it now in the Developer Preview: We’ve made some good progress on the iphone and ipad apps, with annotations obviously being one of the key features to add.
    Also, do you think it would make sense for someone from Mendeley to be present at the eEd meeting? We might be able to arrange it if you’ll let me know the details.

  • Andy says:

    You need devonthink and Sente in your life. Just saying.

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