Research tools and the web: finding and keeping track of references

01Feb09
The internet has revolutionized the research process providing a range of new, on demand sources for scholarly articles. In today’s post I wanted to briefly look at some free tools for finding and keeping track of research sources on the web that I have found useful in writing a PhD and also working as an archaeological consultant.

Finding references: Google Scholar
Most people are familiar with Google Scholar, the search engine that retrieves information about research papers, books and so on. It can be incredibly useful, particularly if you are delving into a new field or research area and you quickly need to identify key sources. Scholar is reliant upon search engines having discovered a source in order for it to show up in your search results. Thus, if a source is not available on the web in the correct format then, logically, it does not show up in scholar search results and so searches on any particular topic might only return a small number of relevant sources available. Typically, there was a bias towards recent journal articles that were on the web.

This was once a real limitation to scholar’s usefulness. However, during the past two or three years things have changed as more and more academic sources – both new and old – are being posted to the web. Today, scholar is a powerful tool that returns relatively comprehensive results in many subject areas. You can search for articles by author as well as those which are published within specific journals or in a particular date range; results can be directly imported into your bibliography software (see below). It has its limits though and the number one limitation in my view is scholar’s inability to monitor your searches. At present it is not possible (easily and reliably at least) to monitor a particular search for new articles as they appear. For example, if I search for ‘coastal archaeology’ in December it would be useful for scholar to notify me when a new article appears in those search results in February.

If you’ve not used scholar for a while it is well worth revisiting. It is constantly improving and is (in my experience) the easiest way to quickly find relevant scholarly articles on the web today.

Zotero
(Zoh-TAIR-oh) is, in the words from their website, “a free, easy to use firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources”. It is an open source project based out of George Mason University and is free to install and use without restrictions. It serves three main purposes:

– Collecting sources. Zotero uses bits of code called translators that allow you to import citation information from a website automatically. Many popular journal databases and major libraries have working translators and more are being actively developed. The result: you can visit many major sources of references, search and find what you are looking for and with one click import these into your Zotero bibliographic database. In other words, no more manual entry of citation information into your bibliographic software!

Major journal publishers such as Elsevier as well as Google Scholar, Amazon and many, many other websites are supported.

– Manage your sources. Zotero imports your references into a database file on your Mac or PC which is accessed by using your firefox web browser. You can create folder hierarchies (Zotero calls them ‘collections’) in which you can store your references. Once you have a source in Zotero you can add tags (keywords), enter notes, create links to any website (e.g. to reviews of a book) and attach a link to a local file or web document. Figure 1 below shows the browser interface.

– Cite sources and create bibliographies. This part of Zotero is important as it allows you to directly cite a source from your database in a document, and automatically create a bibliography of sources cited. I use Word 2008 on a Mac, which is not supported yet, however this function works on most other versions of word and on all versions of open office. You simply install a small add-on, select the reference you want to cite, and you’re away.

With these sorts of options Zotero is emerging as a serious stable alternative to commercial bibliographic software such as Procite and Endnote. It’s clean, fast, stable and customizable. It’s web interface is its real strength. I use it mostly for importing references I find in google scholar: simply run a search on scholar, click the ‘Save to Zotero’ button and select the references to import.


Figure 1 – The Zotero interface

Citeulike
Citeulike is best compared to a social bookmarking utility for scholarly articles. Users create their own account and add articles to their library by using a small bookmarklet (a bookmark that opens a pop-up window – see Figure 2, below). This process is automatic for most major journal websites, and so once you find an article you simply click your bookmarklet and it is directly added to your library. Citeulike doesn’t yet have the functionality of Zotero so for example, you can not automatically add references from Google Scholar to your library, however most major journal databases do work well.

Citeulike has other advantages that make it a crucial part of my work flow at the moment, mainly because it supports web feeds. All users have a web feed, meaning that others can subscribe to your feed and be notified when you add a new reference. You can also create and subscribe to feeds published by groups, for example I have created the group “Archaeology and Palaeoenvironments of the Australia-Pacific” which is open for anyone to join. Any members of this group will be automatically notified of new references added to the group’s library. So, for me the great value of citeulike is that it makes it much easier to share references between people interested in similar areas.

Figure 2 – Citeulike bookmarklet pop-up

So in summary, my web workflow consists of the following:

1) find references in scholar, citeulike or by browsing journal websites;
2) add my reference to citeulike OR zotero depending on which platform allows me to automatically import my reference;
3) download the article PDF to my computer;
4) export the citation from Zotero or citeulike into my local endnote library (one click);
5) attach the PDF to the endnote item; and finally,
6) read!

It may seem like a lengthy process but in most cases it takes me only 1-2 minutes to find, import and cite a new reference using these tools. Zotero is rapidly improving and will soon allow users to share libraries, thereby replacing much of the functionality of citeulike. Although for many using these sorts of tools may be quite new, they are typically very easy to use and can speed up the time it takes to find and manage your research sources.

I’d be interested to hear from others who use these or other tools or have suggestions for improving this system. You can do so in the comments below.

Links:

Google Scholar

Zotero

Citeulike

My citeulike library

Citeulike group: archaeology and palaeoenvironments of Australia and the Pacific

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4 Responses to “Research tools and the web: finding and keeping track of references”

  1. 1 IainS

    Have you noticed through that Google scholar is really great for the sciences but relatively poor for the social sciences and humanities making it hard to chase down articles from such journals as Historical Archaeology or Australasian Historical Archaeology.As for the rip off costs of on-line journal articles $A30.00 for an article written in 1960 and probably the author got no payment then and gets no payment now.

  2. 2 Mick Morrison

    Hi Iain, welcome – I hope you enjoy my blog!To be honest I don’t often search for historical archaeology sources but it’s interesting you say that. I have had similar troubles with other Aussie journals (like Archaeology in Oceania and Australian Archaeology) – these are often completely left off the search results even when you are searching for quite specific articles.I wonder whether it has to do with the indexing and database services that our journals use? It might also be to do with the number of citations a particular article has. Other than that, I’m stumped!

  3. Good intro to Zotero! Regarding the social sciences issue – I think it has a lot to do with the journals themselves. Agreements with databases such as JSTOR or a lack of online content keeps a lot of them from showing up in Google Scholar. One thing that Google Scholar excels at is finding dissertations and theses. Both are rarely published whole and are often available (for free or a small fee) through university libraries. My current university is switching to electronically submitted dissertations and theses and they will be searchable through google scholar.

  4. 4 mickmorrison

    Thanks for the comment, Jonathan. I’ll just be happy when Google Scholar supports search results as RSS feeds! It would be brilliant way to keep up with new content.


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