PDF and Citation Management

A new academic year looms. This means a new crop of graduate students will begin their academic training. PDF management is a critical tool that all graduate students need to use and the sooner the better. Often these tools go hand-in-hand with a citation management system, which is also critical for graduate students.

Using a citation management software makes scholarly work easier and more effective. First and foremost, these tools allow you to automatically cite references for a paper in a wide range of bibliographic styles. They also allow you to organize, evaluate, annotate, and search within your citation collection and share your references with others. Often they also sync across machines and devices allowing you to access your database wherever you are.

There are several tools available for PDF/citation management, including:

Some of these are citation managers only (BibDesk). Many allow you to also manage your PDF files as well; naming, organizing, and moving your files to a central repository on your computer. Some allow for annotation within the software as well. There are several online comparisons of some of the different systems ( e.g., Penn LibrariesUW Madison Library, etc.) From my experience, students tend to choose either Mendelay or Zotero—my guess is because they are free.

There is a lot to be said for free software, and both Zotero and Mendelay seem pretty solid. However, as a graduate student you should understand that you are investing in your future. This type of tool, I think it is fair to say, you will be using daily. Spending money on a tool that has the features and UI that you will want to use is perfectly ok and should even be encouraged.

Another consideration for students who are beginning the process is to find out what your advisor(s), and research groups use. Although many are cross-compatible, using and learning the tool is easier with a group helping you.

What Do I Use?

I use Papers. It is not free (a student license is ~$50). When I started using Papers, Mendelay and Zotero were not available. I actually have since used both Mendelay and Zotero for a while, but then ultimately made the decision this summer to switch back to Papers. It is faster and more importantly to me, has better search functionality, both across and within a paper.

I would like to use Sente (free for up to 100 references), but the search function is very limited. In my opinion, Sente has the best UI..it is sleek and minimalist and reading a paper is a nice experience.

My Recommendation…

Ultimately, use what you are comfortable with and then, actually use it. Take the time to enter ALL the meta-data for PDFs as you accumulate them. Don’t imagine you will have time to do it later…you won’t. Being organized with your references from the start will keep you more productive later.