Tools for Optimal Flow

Technology-enabled research workflows

July 30, 2012

It’s amazing how quickly things change in the world of technology. When I wrote a book in 2005, I printed out all my research sources so I could highlight and take notes on them. I kept track of things I found on the web using a social bookmarking tool that only helped me find the resource later, not cite it in my manuscript. I cited everything manually, with the source in one hand and an MLA guide in the other. Yes, citation tools like EndNote and RefWorks existed, but they didn’t make it easy to import resources from library databases or the web, and they certainly weren’t free. When I moved across the country last year, I got rid of my research from that book, tossing out an entire large file drawer’s worth of paper. Ouch!

In the ensuing years, many fantastic tools have been released that make the work of collecting and using research so much simpler than I could have imagined in 2005. Tablets have made the experience of annotating research online far more pleasant. These days, instead of printing out my research, I corral all of it into a folder in Dropbox, a cloud storage service, and then upload it into iAnnotate on my iPad, where I highlight and take notes directly on the PDF. While there are many great annotation tools for personal computers, the portability of tablets makes the experience similar to that of working with paper.

Using Zotero and Mendeley, I haven’t had to create a citation from scratch in years. Zotero is a free and open source citation management tool that allows researchers to easily grab citation information at the click of a button from any website that provides the information in a structured format (think research databases and Amazon, for example). Mendeley is a citation management and social networking tool whose strength lies in grabbing PDFs from folders on your desktop and puzzling out the citation by searching the PDF text and various databases. Mendeley has a great PDF annotation tool within its interface, which allows you to keep your citations, documents, and notes in one place. Both tools offer Microsoft Word and OpenOffice plugins, which make it easy to insert citations in your chosen format directly into your paper.

Mendeley has also proven to be a great discovery tool, allowing users to search its crowdsourced database of hundreds of millions of resources that its users have collected. I’ve now added Mendeley to my search routine and always find things I didn’t see anywhere else. Unlike databases that find things based on relevance, I can see in Mendeley how many other scholars have added the work to their own library, which is a tacit recommendation.

Can’t choose between Mendeley and Zotero? You don’t have to. I have Mendeley set up to pull any citations I add to my Zotero library, which means I can capitalize on the power of Zotero to pull content from the web and still use the Mendeley interface, which I prefer.

Everyone has a different research workflow, and fortunately, many amazing tools are now available to enable the diversity of approaches. From Evernote to Diigo to Instapaper, many free or inexpensive tools now allow you to manage, annotate, and use sources in ways that fit your needs. Because keeping organized is so critical to the success of any research project, taking the time to find the tools and techniques that work for you may save a lot of time in the long run.

MEREDITH FARKAS is head of instructional services at Portland (Oreg.) State University. She is also part-time faculty at San José State University School of Library and Information Science. She blogs at Information Wants to Be Free and created Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki. Contact her at librarysuccess[at]


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