Keep Track of Your References

By Adam Topaz

Remember that paper you read 4 months ago… the one with the really interesting result that you planned to use in your research but then somehow you forgot about it? Well it’s 4 months later, and it’s finally time to use that result in your research — it’s too bad you can’t remember the name/author of that paper. It’s probably time to start using a reference manager.

There are many options out there. Some of the most popular ones are Papers (Mac only, costs money), Mendeley (free, any platform), and there are many others (here’s a link to an in depth comparison of all of them). Since I use linux, Papers is out of the question for me. I tried Mendeley, but I find it a bit sluggish on my little netbook; also I found the “online community” features are bit annoying.

My program of choice is Jabref. It’s open source and written in Java so it runs on everything. It’s very light-weight and very quick. Jabref is really a bibtex front-end — all it does is update a .bib file on your computer. This is quite convenient since I can just use a single .bib file in anything I write. Also, I use a universal .bib file in my Dropbox folder so that my references are always synced across my multiple computers. It also has some very nice fetching features — it can fetch references from, Jstor, etc..

If you decide to use Jabref, I highly suggest getting the two plugins offered from this link. The two plugins are called “localcopy” and “axriv-RSS.” The first will automatically download a PDF file corresponding to a reference in your database, and save it to a predefined folder with using a customizable naming scheme; if you set this “files” folder inside your Dropbox folder, your PDF files will be synced along with your database across multiple computers. The other plugin lets you browse the newest articles posted on arxiv and select which ones to add to your database.

I hope you decide to use some reference-manager to keep all of your references sorted. And if you do, I would like to hear about your experience via comments!

PS. I would like to thank Asher Auel (a retired editor of this blog) who first suggested that I use a reference-manager.

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