As any student or academic would tell you, keeping track of references is essential. That's why tools such as Mendeley and Zotero are helpful. They are a place to dump pdfs, collect thoughts, annotate documents and export bibtex files for the next paper you're working on.

From when I was writing my masters thesis, I used Mendeley. This was recently after the publishing giant Elsevier got their hands on it, but before the wave of breaking changes started hitting. I valued having a place to put all my content and notes and the reference manager became a more central part of my academic life. When writing my thesis, the integration with Overleaf was a huge time saver, automatically updating the bibliography file when I added new references, saving the manual process of keeping those files in sync.

I stuck with version 1 well after version 2 was released. But then, I got a new laptop and everything changed for me when I had no other option than to use version 2.

Mendeley used to work well as a standalone app. When writing, I could very quickly find a reference I needed, use the search function and cite the reference I needed without giving a second thought. But, the latest changes and "appification" of the tool has made it unusable.

Now, Mendeley doesn't work offline. This makes it impossible to use when I'm on a train or on a flight to a conference. If I try to view my library without Wifi, I get nothing. This is not a desirable, but it doesn't make it a deal breaker.

mendeley reference manager showing no content
Without an internet connection. Mendeley shows you nothing.

My pain-point comes from the need to automatically sync every time the app opens. Syncing is great, it keeps my library up to date (if I add documents from other places or my tablet). But what happens is the search and filtering are disabled until the sync is finished. This can take a few minutes, significantly interrupting my writing flow where I'm twiddling my thumbs or going to Google scholar rather than using the tool where all my references are stored.

When first opening Mendeley, you have to wait for minutes for a sync before you can search.

So, what do you do? Just wait for sync to finish? After syncing the search box will be frozen for an undefined period of time. What's happening here?

Finding another tool

Thankfully, there are large number of reference managers available. Exploring AlternativeTo, shows many alternatives such as Zotero, Qiqqa and more! I look forward to exploring these tools in more depth and seeing how they can support, rather than hinder, my writing style.

I'll start by trying out Zotero, which I'll document fully in another blog post. So far, my first impressions have been pretty positive. I can import my library from Mendeley and I didn't need to create an account before I started using it. This is a great start.

My priorities for my reference manager are:

  • Good search
  • Quickly exporting references
  • Syncing to multiple devices
  • Robust / exportable annotations / highlights on PDF files

I'll write up my feedback on these after the import has finished.