Wednesday, August 6, 2014

BOOK REVIEW - "Mendeley" (Referencing Software)

Mendeley is a cloud based reference storage service - like an itunes version of Endnote that works on all kinds of devices and platforms. 

Even though I think the software is great, I am not a Mendeley user anymore so it sat on my desk for ages. It might still have been there if ANU PhD student and Thesis Bootcamp veteran Paul Farrelly had not visited a couple of weeks later. Paul showed great interest in it, so I gave it to him on the understanding that he would write a review for the Whisperer.

Paul is a later-year PhD candidate in the Australian Centre on China in the World. In addition to researching the cultural history of New Age religion in Taiwan, he is also a contributing editor at The China Story. Paul is on Twitter at @paul_farrelly.

Upon starting my PhD in March 2011 I asked a recent doctoral graduate about his ideal referencing software. Despite not having used any and manually inserting all his citations and bibliography, he suggested Mendeley.

Open to any suggestions, I downloaded a free copy and started using it. Mine was not a completely uninformed choice. I had recently completed a short course on how to use Endnote, having frustratingly fumbled my way through an MA thesis with it.

In the three years of my PhD candidature I have also heard many extol the virtues of Zotero but have maintained my loyalty to Mendeley. More out of a reluctance to explore than anything else.

I am already very happy with Mendeley as a tool for compiling and viewing the vast number of PDF files I have accumulated.

But according to Jacques Raubenheimer, author of Mendeley: Crowd-sourced reference and citation management in the information era (True Insight Publishing, 2014), I am only just glimpsing the potential of Mendeley. Thus when given the chance to review this book I leaped at the opportunity. I wanted to know how to make thesis writing simpler with Mendeley.

At just over 300 pages, Mendeley (Mendeley the book will be italicised in this review, Mendeley the software will not) is pleasingly thorough. Raubenheimer has included more than 360 images and over 30 tables, lending the book a strong visual component that will aid readers in following his instructions.

Mendeley begins with an introduction to key terms and concepts before proceeding to walk users through the many steps required to develop proficiency, and with a little practice, expertise.

From registering with Mendeley and downloading the software, to creating a research profile and deconstructing Mendeley’s structure, Raubenheimer is nothing but methodical [1].

Casual users like me have much to learn from his approach, especially in illuminating hitherto hidden features of Mendeley.

For instance, I now know how to use the “Save to Mendeley” button to import web pages into my library and the utility of Mendeley’s online search function (to find articles in other Mendeley users’ libraries; resembling a refined version of Google Scholar).

The various ways to add and organise material are outlined in detail. Raubenheimer also offers solid advice on how to utilise the collaborative features built into Mendeley. While I am yet to collaborate with colleagues via Mendeley, it could be useful for those of you involved with joint research projects or reading groups, especially when your group is spread around the world.

Somewhat embarrassingly, I had never bothered to learn how to insert citations into a Word document with Mendeley [2]. Raubenheimer devotes a whole chapter to this topic. Thanks to his guidance I am now more comfortable with inserting citations using Mendeley. I will use this technique for citing English language secondary sources.

However, as all my primary sources are in Chinese and I must adhere to certain disciplinary guidelines in referencing them, I have decided it simpler to just add these citations manually.

If you are using more conventional materials than me, then Raubenheimer’s advice is fantastic and Mendeley will be able to help you insert citations and generate an appropriately formatted bibliography.

Not owning an iPad, I was unable to review “Chapter 7: Using the iOS Mendeley App on the iPad”. Based on Raubenheimer’s instructions, it appears to be a much more satisfactory platform than the iPhone (which I have used), where users are more-or-less limited to just reading documents.

Raubenheimer is a casual and chatty author, adding a welcome sheen of humour to what could otherwise be a bone-dry exercise in jargon. His dry wit is especially evident in the footnotes; read them carefully!

In showing multiple ways to import, organise and export material, Mendeley is intentionally repetitive at times. While this repetition can be a bit boring if you are already comfortable with performing a particular task, Raubenheimer demonstrates the versatility of the program and empowers you to choose the methods most suitable for your research.

As might be expected in a technical manual, the text occasionally suffers from being too dense and paragraphs often unfortunately appear to merge together due to formatting shortcomings.

Mendeley is a reasonably intuitive program and one can become a functional user without much strain. However, if you want to harness the real versatility of Mendeley, then Raubenheimer’s Mendeley will be of utmost assistance to you.

In describing how to do almost anything possible on Mendeley, Raubenheimer has written a book not only useful for Mendeley newbies, but also established users who want to maximise its potential.

[1] Interestingly my barren Mendeley profile ranks very high when I do a Google search of my name and research interests (a similar ranking to, but not as high as Twitter or my departmental profile). If you are seeking to spruik your academic wares online, then filling out your Mendeley profile might be a good way to do so.

[2] Partly because my previous experience with Endnote was so farcical, partly because my research materials are all printed documents (analogue!) so I do not catalogue them using Mendeley.

Thanks for the review Paul! You can buy ‘Mendeley’ on Amazon or use the 20% discount voucher Jacques has created to buy it on Creataspace (for a short time only). ave you used Mendeley or another reference manager? What do you recommend new students start with?

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