Jan 28, 2011

RefWorks or no Refworks?

After years of organizing research in a Moleskine notebook, I have finally landed on an online bibliographic manager I can kinda live with ...  
When writing papers, I have always managed my own citations and created bibliographies with the help of either a style book or books.google.com and worldcat.com). The frustration comes in getting the style format correct. Have you ever found yourself at your desk and not able to access the citation for a book you have already returned to the library? Do I use parenthetical citations or footnotes. How do I cite a web site? A movie? A sound recording? A librarian told me once that the easiest way to use a citation style is to not learn how to use it. He mean just refer to the book for the rules. I am sure he would agree a citation manager is even better.
     At my university, the library makes it incredibly easy for students to use bibliographic management software. RefWorks is not free but if you area student it is highly likely your institution subscribes to the service, but you can use Zotero or WorldCat if you don't have RefWorks (but their features are limited).
    When I research on the web or browse books and articles I can simply add references to my RefWorks account. Why didn't I do this before? Before I had to either carry a notebook with me to the library to record bibliographic data or I would key in the data into a word processing program but then I would be paralyzed by not knowing the proper citation format. Do I add the publisher and publication place? Do I need the ISBN? With RefWorks I have folders for the projects I am working on. I have a folder on Hobbes and folder on Kant. I even have a folder for the presentation I am supposed to give on Stanley Cavell's book Pursuits of Happiness. All my citations are there (whether they be a website or a film or a peer reviewed article). I feel more organized and I feel like my research is all in one place. I think of RefWorks as my citation library in the same way I think of Evernote as my ideas library.
    RefWorks keeps my projects organized. If I have already entered a citation in one folder on Kant I can easily put it into another folder I created on Kant and Arendt. Today I used the citation for Cavell's book Pursuits of Happiness for another project on film aesthetics so it was relatively easy to also add it to my presentation folder.
     The interface is rather complicated so you have to have patience and persistence at first. There are several ways to add references to RefWorks. Searching a library catalog or an electronic database, RefWorks allows you to import citations directly from a subscribing school's online catalog or database to your RefWorks account. Look for the export to RefWorks option. I have not found this method to always be efficient. For example, I am a student at a school that shares its library with other consortia members. So if I am not in my home library, but in another library only affiliated with my school, the RefWorks login screen pops up demanding that I enter the group code. I don't know my school's group code. Or if I am at home I have to remember to log in to RefWorks through my school's page. I have to manually type in the information for the reference. The nice thing though is that RefWorks gives me a host of fields: I can enter in as little or as much information on a source as I want. An awesome feature is the attachment option. If I have a file of quotes from a particular source I can append it to the citation as an attachment.
      The big plus for using RefWorks is the same reason why I use Google Docs or MobileMe or Carbonite. The service is web based and I can work on a project no matter where I am. Either at home, at work, or at school I can add to my RefWorks account with references. The other big plus for me is that when I am ready to export a bibliography from the sources I intend to use for my paper I can export them into almost any available citation format (MLA, APA, Turabian, etc.). This feature saves me tons of time because some of my professors require different citation formats. It's a pain in the butt to have to re-format a paper. I did this once for my Master's Thesis. Not fun. Where was RefWorks then?
    I can actually create a document in Microsoft Word and install RefWorks plugin Write-N-Cite and practically write my paper and at the end of the day convert it into any citation style I may need. Unfortunately you have to use Microsoft Word (on a Mac or PC) for this feature to work. I use Google Docs or iWork. What do I do? I have to use RefWork's CiteView option which allows me to manually insert citations I create into my documents without the advantage of instantaneously formatting allowed by Write-N-Cite. The CiteView option is tedious and not user friendly. RefWorks forces you to insert clunky text chunks where your citation should go then when you are done writing your paper you upload the document to RefWorks and it correctly formats your paper. Personally I rather just do this myself and only use RefWorks for the organizational features which makes me second guess any reason why I would pay a premium to use the service when I can get the same functionality from other online venues. The huge improvement in services like RefWorks, however, which differs from EndNote, is the freedom to work on any platform and in any word processor. EndNote is a great application but I have to be sitting at a computer that has it installed with a compatible word processor. EndNote in my opinion is not worth the money. And to my knowledge it is not cloud based.
    RefWorks is not intuitive. The graphic user interface is intimidating. There are way too many buttons and options. To do simple tasks like generate a bibliography or toggle between folders can become frustrating ordeals if the wrong button is pressed. I tried to import an existing bibliography I had created in WorldCat and I was not able to accomplish this feat. RefWorks is a powerful tool in assisting students in managing their research and citing sources but I recommend taking an hour introductory class before jumping into it. I took a class at my university and found it to be extremely helpful and I can see already that two things will increase my productivity: the universal access to my work and the ability to create bibliographies in tons of formats. If you are not affiliated with an institution that has a subscription then I suggest go with the free online services. Personally I like WorldCat's List feature. I will write about it in a future post. It allows you create folders as well and to create multiple bibliographies in various citation formats. Also, I should add, none of these services, WorldCat, Zotero, RefWorks, EndNote, will do your research for you; the programs will not magically provide an A+ paper but they will certainly (if used efficiently -- with a little bit of a learning curve) aid you in creating a polished, finished product.

What has been your experience with online bibliography and citation managers?


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