How to choose the best online citation tools

Just as I finally get used to loving Zotero, it looks like Mendeley is set to claim my heart. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, these are on-line citation tools for academic research and writing. They use various different methods for collecting and manipulating metadata relating to books, journals, papers and websites – and then linking it all together automagically. They hold out the promise of automating activities that until now have been painstaking and laborious for researchers, and of creating new opportunities for collaboration that never existed before. But there is a down side. Since each tool is slightly different and offers different but overlapping benefits, it’s not clear which one you should use. So, if I store all my citations in Zotero, that’s helpful, but it means I’m not taking advantage of the tools the others offer. I could always sign up to, say, three of them: Zotero, Mendeley and Cite-U-like, and than pretty much have all bases covered. But by that time I’m spending almost as much time fiddling with databases as I was previously, before all these marvelous tools started proliferating like bluebells in the magic forest. I guess this is one of the reasons why so many people leave these kinds of decisions to the early adopters and wait a while to see which tool wins.

But to do so might underestimate the rate of change on the web. It would be a bit like holding off until now on deciding whether AOL or Compuserve is the best internet community, whether to go with geocities or tripod to make and host your website, or whether Alta Vista or Yahoo made a better search engine. It may have made sense a long while back in the 1990s but the battle between these rival services was cut short by the emergence of younger technologies, making them obsolete before the winner could be declared.

So the solution may well be to just jump in, choose one (or maybe two) and see where it takes you. By the time the jury’s out, the internet will have changed so much that the judging of a winner will be irrelevant.

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