Which one is the best reference management software? That’s a question any student or researcher should think about quite carefully, because choosing the best reference manager may save lots of time and increase the quality of your work significantly. So, which reference manager is best? Zotero? Mendeley? Docear? …? The answer is: “It depends”, because different people have different needs. Actually, there is no such thing as the ‘best’ reference manager but only the reference manager that is best for you (even though some developers seem to believe that their tool is the only truly perfect one).
In this Blog-post, we compare Zotero, Mendeley, and Docear and we hope that the comparison helps you to decide which of the reference managers is best for you. Of course, there are many other reference managers. Hopefully, we can include them in the comparison some day, but for now we only have time to compare the three. We really tried to do a fair comparison, based on a list of criteria that we consider important for reference management software. Of course, the criteria are subjectively selected, as are all criteria by all reviewers, and you might not agree with all of them. However, even if you disagree with our evaluation, you might find at least some new and interesting aspects as to evaluate reference management tools. You are very welcome to share your constructive criticism in the comments, as well as links to other reviews. In addition, it should be obvious that we – the developers of Docear – are somewhat biased. However, this comparison is most certainly more objective than those that Mendeley and other reference managers did ;-).
Please note that we only compared about 50 high-level features and used a simple rating scheme in the summary table. Of course, a more comprehensive list of features and a more sophisticated rating scheme would have been nice, but this would have been too time consuming. So, consider this review as a rough guideline. If you feel that one of the mentioned features is particularly important to you, install the tools yourself, compare the features, and share your insights in the comments! Most importantly, please let us know when something we wrote is not correct. All reviewed reference tools offer lots of functions, and it might be that we missed one during our review.
The table above provides an overview of how Zotero, Mendeley, and Docear support you in various tasks, how open and free they are, etc. Details on the features and ratings are provided in the following sections. As already mentioned, if you notice a mistake in the evaluation (e.g. missed a key feature), please let us know in the comments.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Detailed Comparison
- 2.1 Operating Systems & Languages
- 2.2 Information Management Approach
- 2.3 Costs, Openness, Freedom and Sustainability
- 2.4 Reference Management
- 2.5 Text Processing Software Integration
- 2.6 PDF Management
- 2.7 File Management
- 2.8 Social Network & Collaboration
- 2.9 Literature Search & Discovery
- 2.10 Notes, Task & Information Management
- 2.11 Document Drafting & Outlining
- 3 Summary
If you don’t want to read a lot, just jump to the summary
We believe that a reference manager should offer more features than simple reference management. It should support you in (1) finding literature, (2) organizing and annotating literature, (3) drafting your papers, theses, books, assignments, etc., (4) managing your references (of course), and (5) writing your papers, theses, etc. Additionally, many – but not all – students and researchers might be interested in (6) socializing and collaboration, (7) note, task, and general information management, and (8) file management. Finally, we think it is important that a reference manager (9) is available for the major operating systems, (10) has an information management approach you like (tables, social tags, search, …), and (11) is open, free, and sustainable (see also What makes a bad reference manager).
Operating Systems & Languages
Obviously, a reference manager must be available for your favorite operating system but it’s also important that a reference manager is available for as many operating systems as possible, in general. For instance, when you want to cooperate with another researcher, cooperation will be much easier when your collaborator is using the same reference manager as you are. Therefore, the more operating systems a reference manager is available for, the higher the chance that potential collaborators will be able to use your favorite reference manager. In addition, if you are planning a career in academia, you might be required by your employer to use a certain operating system. If your reference manager isn’t available for that system you will most likely spend quite a bit of time migrating to another one. To prevent that hassle, choose a reference manager that supports as many platforms as possible.
Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X are supported by Zotero, Mendeley, and Docear. A web version is offered only by Zotero and Mendeley. However, Docear offers a prototype web version that – for some data – gives you a version history, i.e. you can restore previous versions of your data without time restrictions. Also a mobile version is only offered by Zotero and Mendeley (Zotero does not offer a mobile version itself but there are good third party applications).
A multilingual version may be important for non-English speakers. Mendeley’s website and software are available in English only. Docear offers an English-only website, English and German support, and the software itself is mostly available in different languages. Zotero offers a multilingual user-interface and most help pages on Zotero’s website are also translated into different languages.
Information Management Approach
Eventually, reference management is all about structuring and finding information, and there are various approaches in which to do this. For instance, with tables you sort references by author name or title; with folders or social tags you structure and browse your references; and a search function helps to find reference when e.g. your folder structure isn’t meaningful enough. There is no best approach to manage your information. All approaches have their pros and cons. However, you should be aware of the different approaches and ideally you should try them out before deciding which reference manager is most suitable for you.
A three (or four) section user-interface is what most reference managers offer, and so do Zotero and Mendeley. Mendeley’s main component is a table showing all your documents (below screenshot, middle). The second component (left) lets you create categories to which you add your documents. In the third section, notes and annotations for your documents are displayed. You can create one global note per document and Mendeley also shows annotations you created directly in your PDF files with Mendeley’s internal PDF editor.
Zotero’s user-interface is quite similar to Mendeley, yet you can create several global notes but won’t be able to see the annotations you made directly in PDF files. In addition, PDFs are shown directly in your browser (Zotero is a FireFox plug-in but there is also a stand-alone version) and your notes will also show up in the main table. If you install the add-on ‘Zotfile’, Zotero can also import PDF annotations, which should give you basically the same features as Mendeley.
Docear also offers a classic three section user-interface showing your references in a table and sorted by categories, allowing you to create one global note per document. Docear’s three section user-interface is not as comfortable and neat as the one of Mendeley and Zotero. However, the three-section user-interface isn’t Docear’s primary approach to manage information …
Docear’s primary approach to manage information is a single section user-interface. This approach shows all your categories, documents, and annotations in a single window. The downside of this approach is that it’s not as intuitive as the classic approach of Mendeley and Zotero, and takes some time to master. The advantages are manifold. First of all, a single section user-interface allows you to browse multiple documents of multiple categories at the same time. Second, you can see multiple annotations of multiple documents at the same time. Third, you can move single annotations to any category you like (instead of entire documents including all their annotations). Fourth, you can create sub-categories within a PDF to better organize your annotations. These four advantages allow a significantly more comprehensive management of your PDFs, and annotations in particular, than with the classic approach. To learn more about the single-section user interface read here….
Social tags are a great means of organizing references, in addition to the primary organization concept. Both Zotero and Mendeley offer a function to add social tags to references. Zotero also offers a list in which all your tags are listed, so you can easily select them (though, a tag-cloud is missing). We couldn’t find such a list in Mendeley which seems to make the tagging function significantly less useful than the one of Zotero. Docear doesn’t offer social tags but “attributes”.
Attributes are key-value pairs that can be added to documents. Instead of adding one-dimensional tags (e.g. “reference management”), you can add two-dimensional tags (e.g. “application:reference_management” or “application:pdf_viewer” or “number_of_study_participants:15”). Overall, attributes are more difficult to use but also more powerful than social tags (read more). Mendeley and Zotero don’t offer attributes .
A standard search function is offered by all three tools. Overall, Docear and Zotero probably have the most powerful search functions. Among others, operators like “smaller/larger than”, and regular expressions are supported, and you can save search queries for later re-use.
Docear additionally offers a filtering function which leaves all matches in their original folder structure and does not list them in a plain table. In combination with the attributes, it’s possible to search/filter e.g. for those papers which you classified as reporting about a study with 15 participants (or more than 50 participants, or 20 to 120 participants, …).
Costs, Openness, Freedom and Sustainability
It’s needless to say that a reference manager offered at no cost is better than one that does cost money (given they offer the same features). Fortunately, Zotero, Mendeley, and Docear are all free to use. If you want to use Zotero’s and Mendeley’s premium services you will be charged, but we don’t see that as a disadvantage because there are no other reference managers that would offer comparable premium features for free.
In terms of openness and freedom, Zotero and Docear win over Mendeley. Both are open source and don’t require you to store your data in the cloud. Zotero offers a documented API while Docear also has an API but it’s not yet documented (which makes it basically useless for the standard user) and has only few features. Docear’s data format could be considered a little bit more open than that of Zotero. Docear stores its data in text files (BibTeX and XML) which can be read by any text editor and understood by anyone with some basic computer knowledge. Also annotations are stored directly in PDF files and can be accessed with any standard PDF reader. To read and understand Zotero’s SQLite database, significantly more knowledge is required. Both Docear and Zotero offer various export formats and users can create add-ons to extend the functionality of Docear or Zotero respectively. Since Zotero’s user base is larger than Docear’s, there are more, and also more interesting add-ons for Zotero than for Docear.
In contrast, Mendeley is a proprietary software, requiring a registration, and it forces you to store your data on their servers, which may lead to problems in the long run. Although Mendeley offers a well-documented API, not all data is accessible through that API (e.g. annotations), and accessing Mendeley’s SQLite database has the same restrictions as accessing Zotero’s data (a significant amount of database knowledge is required). Most importantly, Mendeley has a vendor-lock if you use Mendeley’s internal PDF viewer to create annotations in PDF files. In contrast to Docear, Mendeley is storing annotations in their SQLite database and not directly in the PDFs. This means, when you want to send a PDF, including annotations, to a friend, or when you want switch from Mendeley to another reference manager, you need to export your PDFs with the annotations. However, the export has several shortcomings.
- There is no bulk export for PDFs. To export multiple PDFs, you need to open each PDF separately, and select “File -> Export PDF with annotations…” and go through the saving dialog. If you have hundreds of PDFs to export, the export process will take hours.
- Highlighted text is not exported in the PDF standard format. Although the exported highlight is visible in a standard PDF viewer, you won’t be able to delete or modify it (see picture below).
- Comments (i.e. sticky notes), are exported in the PDF standard format. However, Mendeley adds some weird icons for each comment and you can’t delete these icons (see picture below).
- On the last page of an exported PDF, Mendeley lists all the comments you made. The problem is that even if you delete the original comment with in a standard PDF editor, the list remains as it is. This might become a privacy problem if you make some not-so-nice comments and want to change them later to being able to send the PDF to a colleague.
It has to be noted that Mendeley’s export factor has improved in the past months. A while ago Mendeley couldn’t export highlighted text at all, and comments were only exported in a weird format that was basically not usable at all. Hence, there seems to be a good chance that some day Mendeley will provide a truly decent export. Until then, we would suggest that you not use Mendeley’s annotation function (or use another reference manager if you want to annotate PDFs).
Another important aspect for choosing a reference manager is its long-term sustainability, at least if you are planning a career in academia. By long-term sustainability we mean the probability that a reference manager is continuously developed over time in the way you would want it to be developed. In this regard, Zotero, Mendeley, and Docear are quite different.
Zotero is owned by the George Mason University; it’s entire source code is open source; and there is a great community behind Zotero. It’s very unlikely that Zotero’s development would stop in the coming years and even if it did, others could adopt the source code and continue the development. In addition, it’s unlikely that Zotero would do something you wouldn’t want them to do, e.g. selling your data, strongly increasing prices for the premium services, etc. Zotero is a true non-profit project and the major stakeholders don’t have to worry about generating enormous profits etc.
Docear is also open source but its financial backup is less strong than that of Zotero. Hence, chances that Docear exists in ten years are lower than chances that Zotero exists in ten years. However, even if there weren’t any more financial support for our team, chances are that we would continue the development in our spare time or others adopt our source code. In addition, some of our team members are pursuing an academic career. As such, there is a good chance that in a few years, Docear will have a sustainability similar to Zotero.
A while ago, Mendeley was acquired by Elsevier for an estimated 69-100 Million Dollars. That’s good, on the one hand: You can be pretty sure that Mendeley’s development is important to Elsevier, and most likely Elsevier will further invest of the development. On the other hand, Elsevier is not known for its charity and certainly wants something in return for their investment. Nobody really knows what Elsevier expects from its investment. And nobody knows what Elsevier would do if their expectations are not met. Would they sell Mendeley? Would they bury it? Would they try to increase revenues by any means? Therefore, compared to Zotero, the future of Mendeley is more uncertain. If you are interested in more details, there are two interesting Blog posts, including excellent comments, about the sustainability of Mendeley and Zotero: 1. “Zotero Versus” by Sean Takats, the director of Zotero, and 2. “The Mendeley Dilemma”.
Zotero, Mendeley, and Docear all offer the basic features for managing references, that is creating and editing references, choosing a publication type (article, book, thesis, …), showing and sorting the entries in a table, etc.
Docear additionally offers some enhanced formatting capabilities. For instance, you can format the text, add icons, change colors of the categories, and add visual links between papers. Mendeley and Zotero don’t have such functions.
A web-importer may be useful when you want to import data from external sources, e.g. Google Scholar, or other digital libraries. Both, Zotero and Mendeley have such importers. Since we are not intensively using Mendeley and Zotero, we cannot tell which one is better (please share your experiences in the comments). Docear has no web-importer.
Text Processing Software Integration
Zotero, Mendeley, and Docear all offer add-ons for Microsoft Word (Docear only for Windows). For LibreOffice and OpenOffice, Zotero and Mendeley offer add-ons, and Docear plans to develop such an add-on. All add-ons are based on the citation style language which means with either add-on you have access to the same citation styles. The interfaces and functions of the add-ons slightly differ. Mendeley’s interface is the simplest, without any settings. For instance, you cannot specify page numbers for your citations. Docear and Zotero offer more options such as adding page numbers or suppressing author names. Docear’s add-on has the disadvantage that you cannot add references in footnotes.
If you are using LaTeX, Docear probably is more suitable for you than Mendeley or Zotero. Docear stores its reference data as BibTeX by default and hence can directly be used with LaTeX. Mendeley and Zotero may export their data to BibTeX. Mendeley does this automatically and updates the BibTeX file every time you change some data in Mendeley. Unfortunately, Mendeley has some serious bugs and only few features regarding the BibTeX export. For instance, there are often duplicate entries, sometimes with the same BibTeX key. Furthermore, it is not possible to specify the pattern of how BibTeX keys are created. As far as we know, Zotero has no such bugs but don’t give you too many options for the export. Another issue is that Zotero does not automatically update the BibTeX file, when you change your data (though, there are external add-ons doing this).
Nowadays, researchers often work with digital copies of books and research articles, i.e. PDFs. Most modern reference managers offer features to support PDF management, for instance with automatic metadata extraction or automatic file renaming.
A watch folder function monitors a certain folder on your hard drive for new PDFs. Once a new PDF is stored in that folder, it will be listed in your reference management software automatically. If you work a lot with PDFs, such a function is really useful. Both Mendeley and Docear offer such a feature, Zotero does not by default (with the add-on Zotfile you can add such functions).
Metadata extraction from PDF files saves you from manually typing all the bibliographic data manually. Again, if you work a lot with PDFs such a feature massively reduces your work-load. All three reference managers offer such a feature but Mendeley’s metadata extraction is best. Mendeley automatically extracts metadata for all your PDFs with quite decent precision. With Zotero and Docear you must explicitly select a PDF and choose to retrieve the metadata. Precision also seems to be slightly lower (just a gut feeling, no hard evidence).
(Automatic) PDF renaming is best with Mendeley. Once the bibliographic data for a PDF is available you can specify a pattern that Mendeley renames the file to (e.g. Author_year.pdf). Zotero automatically renamed PDFs only when you import them through the Web Importer. Otherwise, you need to do a right click on a PDF to start the renaming. You can also not specify the pattern how the PDF shall be renamed but Zotero always renames it like “Author – Year – Title.pdf”. However, the add-on Zotfile offers many options more for renaming PDF files in Zotero. In Docear, you can rename PDF files manually (to any name you want), but the new file name won’t be updated in your reference database (you would have to do this manually or with a ‘search and replace’ command).
Mendeley and Docear allow you to select a personal PDF storage location wherever you want (e.g. c:\my data\pdfs\). In Zotero, all PDFs are stored in a cryptic and hidden directory (e.g. C:\Users\<username>\AppData\Roaming\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\6xv833gw.default\zotero\storage\MAFR7WED\), by default. You can change that path but it’s only possible to specify one directory. It’s also worth noticing that Zotero always creates a copy when you ‘drag and drop’ a file into Zotero and does not link the file. Again, the add-on Zotfile compensate this shortcoming.
Full-text search for your PDFs is offered by Mendeley and Zotero but not by Docear.
Viewing PDFs is possible with all three reference managers. Mendeley offers an internal PDF viewer that can display PDFs, copy text, and rotate pages. That’s basically it. There is no print function, you cannot create snapshots, change the page layout, add text or images to the PDF, and so on and so forth. Another major disadvantage is that Mendeley’s PDF viewer uses the Mendeley window exclusively. This means that you cannot open a PDF in Mendeley and work at the same time at your reference data. Both Zotero and Docear open PDFs in an external viewer when you click on a PDF link in the reference manager. This has the advantage that you can work with the reference data and PDF at the same time. More important, there are plenty of free PDF viewer that offers lots of features such as printing, different page layouts, snapshots, etc.
Creating annotations directly in PDFs and integrating them in your reference manager is – in our opinion – the most effective way of managing PDFs and their content. Both Mendeley and Docear generally offer such a function. Mendeley’s integrated PDF viewer can highlight text and create comments, and shows comments also in the main window aside the reference table. What you cannot do with Mendeley is to create bookmarks, underline or cross-out text, select the highlight color, or access highlighted text directly in Mendeley’s main window. With Docear, you create annotations in your external PDF viewer. There are several free PDF viewers that can highlight text (in various colors), create comments, and bookmarks. Docear then imports all three type of the annotations and allows to organize them in Docear. As in Mendeley, a click on an annotation opens the PDF at the corresponding page. For Windows users, we think that “Docear + external PDF” viewer is superior to “Mendeley + Internal PDF Viewer” in all respects. However, for Mac and Linux users, no really perfect (free) PDF viewers are available. Therefore, Linux users should ideally use e.g. PDF XChange Viewer with Wine. If they don’t want that, Mendeley might be the superior alternative, though, there is one serious disadvantage more of Mendeley that will be covered in the next paragraph. Zotero cannot import PDF annotations to organize them in Zotero. With the add-on Zotfile you may import annotations but some important features such as “jump to page” are missing.
We consider it crucial that you use a PDF editor that complies to the PDF standard. Otherwise, you can’t send PDFs (including annotations) to colleagues, or read and edit the annotations in other PDF software tools. For instance, it will be very difficult, if not to say impossible, to ever change your reference manager (see lock-in effect). Mendeley’s PDF viewer does not comply to the PDF standard and does not provide a decent export for your PDFs. Mendeley’s PDF viewer also doesn’t show comments you made with other PDF viewers in your PDFs. Since Docear and Zotero use external PDF viewers, these usually store all their information in the PDF standard format.
With Zotero, Mendeley, and Docear you can drag & drop files of any type (images, spreadsheets, …) to the software and create references for them. Docear offers some more advanced file management features which eases your daily work with non-PDF files.
Docear may watch folders for any file type and not only for new PDFs. This means that whenever you store new images, text documents, spreadsheets, etc. in your watch-folders, Docear imports them. Which file types eventually are imported can be specified by the user.
A simple file browser (screenshot, left part) allows browsing your files and to create shortcuts in your mind maps to these files and folders.
The file browser also allows simple file operations such as moving, copying, deleting, and renaming files. However, these functions are not yet fully usable because e.g. the path of a moved PDF won’t be changed in the mind maps.
Social Network & Collaboration
Mendeley offers a social network. You may create a personal homepage showing your publications and other information, and you may connect to other researchers and receive their updates (new publications, etc.). In addition, you may embed your publication list on external web pages. Zotero and Docear offer no social network, though Zotero users may embed their publication list on external web pages through Zotero’s API. However, this requires some programming knowledge and Mendeley’s function is more comfortable. If you are interested in academic networks, you may also look at Researchgate or Academia.edu, which are pure academic networks with more feature than Mendeley but without offering a reference manager.
An Integrated synchronization function is offered by both Mendeley and Zotero. This function allows you to synchronize your data between different devices, e.g. your home and work computer – out of the box. Such a function is very comfortable but it’s not free, after you use more than 300MB (Zotero) or 2 GB (Mendeley) storage. If you need more storage, Mendeley charges you $5 a month for 5GB ($55/y), $10 a month for 10GB ($110/y), and $15 for unlimited storage ($165/y). Zotero charges you roughly around the same. Docear has no integrated synchronization feature, but it’s being planned.
If you want to synchronize your data with 3rd party tools such as Dropbox or OwnCloud, Docear is probably more suitable than Mendeley and Zotero, though not perfect. Docear stores its data in text files (BibTeX and XML) or directly in PDFs. This means, you can easily store all your files in Docear and synchronize them e.g. with Dropbox or SVN. Mendeley and Zotero store their data in local SQLite database. It’s possible to synchronize these databases but it’s not that comfortable.
Mendeley and Zotero offer some integrated functions to collaborate. For instance, you can share your documents with colleagues and edit together on the bibliographic data. There are some significant differences between Zotero and Mendeley. With Mendeley, you need to subscribe to a pricy team plan, if you want to collaborate with more than three colleagues. For instance, if you want to collaborate with five people and you are an educational or non-profit organization you pay $49 every month. If you are a profit-organization, and you want to collaborate with e.g. 25 colleagues, you pay $299 every month ($~3.200 a year). With Zotero you only need to pay for a storage package (see above) and have unlimited collaborators for free. The same is true for private groups and shared library space. With Mendeley, you need a team plan to use more than 1 private group or more than 100 MB shared library space. In Zotero, these features are included in the normal storage prices.
Collaborating via 3rd party tools is not possible with Mendeley and Zotero because there is no easy way to keep SQLite databases in sync when different users change the data at the same time. With Docear, synchronization is partly possible. For instance, you could use SVN to collaborate on BibTeX files and mind-maps, and merge changes automatically. However, this is sometimes error-prone and installing SVN is not as simple as installing e.g. Dropbox.
Docear offers (partial) backup & versioning which is free of charge, and entirely optional. Whenever you change data in your mind maps, Docear creates a restore point on its server for that mind map. This means that when you accidently delete some data in your mind-maps, you can easily restore it. To some extent, Mendeley and Zotero’s synchronization tool may also be used as backup but as soon as you delete or change data and synchronization takes place, your data is gone.
Literature Search & Discovery
A recommender system for research papers is offered by Mendeley and Docear. All papers that Docear recommends are available for free in full-text, though sometimes the linked URLs are dead. Mendeley offers two recommender systems. The first one, “Mendeley Suggest”, is only offered for premium users. The second one, “Related Papers”, is free and allows you to select a folder in Mendeley that contains a list of papers. Mendeley then calculates a list of related papers. Both recommender systems cannot filter for freely downloadable papers. This means, you might get promising recommendations, but you often will have to look where you eventually find the full-text.
Explicitly searching the paper catalog is only possible with Mendeley. You can directly search the catalog from within the desktop software and download the search results, if they are available in full-text. Based on our experience, it seems that only a small fraction of Mendeley’s search results can be downloaded (perhaps one in 20 or 30 results). Unlike the recommender system, you can filter search results for freely downloadable papers (see also the comments below this post).
While Docear’s catalog is rather small (2 Million full-text articles), Mendeley’s catalog is significantly larger. As such, one potentially might expect more relevant recommendations and search results from Mendeley than from Docear. However, as stated, the recommendations cannot be filtered for freely downloadable papers. In our opinion, this reduces the usefulness of Mendeley’s recommender system and catalog size.
Notes, Task & Information Management
Docear integrates a mind-mapping application, namely Freeplane, which is one of the best mind-mapping tools available. Freeplane offers some simple task management features that allow you to create tasks with a reminder. You can add progress icons to your tasks, and connect tasks with other entries in your mind map. It’s also easy to create notes and manage other information such as the conferences you want to attend, the journals you want to publish in, or the ideas you have. You can even link your information to OpenStreetMaps locations to, for instance, quickly find the location where a conference takes place. Neither the task management, nor the note taking is particularly feature-rich, but it’s far better than nothing.
Zotero also allows creating stand-alone notes in their table view. As with Docear, notes can be formatted with rich text. Overall, the note-taking features of Zotero are significantly less powerful than those of Docear. Mendeley has no such features.
Document Drafting & Outlining
Drafting your own papers, assignments, books, theses, etc. is possible with Docear only. In Docear, you can create new mind maps and outline your paper. Your draft may include LaTeX formulas, HTML code and other formatting, screenshots, notes, and many features more.
Particularly useful is the option to copy PDFs, annotations and references to your draft. This way, you can draft your entire paper, and when you want to look up some information you may click on an annotation and the PDF opens at the page where you made the annotation. This process gives a new dimension to managing your literature. Usually you sort your literature based on your general research categories. In Docear, you may additionally sort your literature and annotations for a particular paper you are planning to write.
Docear allows exporting the draft in many formats such as Microsoft Word or HTML. However, the export has some limitations and hence manual labor is required to transform a draft into the final document.
Now, which reference manager is the best one (for you)? The chart above shows the strengths and weaknesses of the three reference managers, and hopefully helps you to understand the main differences between Zotero, Mendeley, and Docear. The chart below shows the tasks a reference manager should support you in, and how good Zotero, Mendeley and Docear are actually doing it. If a reference manager offers good features to support a particular task, the reference manager’s logo is displayed. If it only offers some features, the logo is displayed less intensive. If a reference manager has hardly any features to support a task, its logo is not shown.
Overall, when you want a reference manager that is available for as many platforms as possible, you should look at Mendeley and Zotero, because Docear has neither a decent web nor mobile version. If openness and sustainability is important to you, focus on Docear and Zotero, but not on Mendeley because Mendeley is not open source, and there is the risk of a lock-in effect. If you want a simple user interface that is intuitive but not very powerful, Zotero or Mendeley are the reference managers to go for. If you want a really powerful user-interface and are willing to invest some time, check out Docear – you will either hate or love its approach (probably latter one :-)). Or, to say it in the words of a user we recently talked with:
“If you are not computer savvy, and just need a simple tool for your assignment, then Zotero or Mendeley is the tool for you, but if you work on scientific papers on a regular basis, or write your thesis, you should invest a few hours to learn the more powerful, but therefore also more complex approach, of Docear”.
If literature search and discovery is important to you, look at Mendeley (Premium) and Docear. If you are working a lot with PDFs, you must choose between: a) Mendeley with its great PDF metadata extraction and file renaming, but a PDF viewer that offers only very few features and uses a proprietary format for PDF annotations b) Docear, which allows you to select from various standard PDF readers, and provides more sophisticated options for sorting and browsing PDFs and their annotations and c) Zotero that offers good pdf management capabilities, if you are investigating which add-ons are available and which ones are best. With respect to simple reference management, it probably doesn’t matter which reference manager you choose (if you are only interested in reference management, you might also be quite happy with JabRef). If you want to draft papers with your reference manager, and use our references and annotations in the drafts, Docear should be the reference manager of your choice. When it comes to writing your papers, theses, etc. all three reference managers have their weaknesses. If you are using Microsoft Word (Windows) or LaTeX, you should probably favor Docear. Docear offers the advantage that – with some limitations – you can export your drafts as e.g. MS-Word document which may ease your writing process significantly. In addition, Docear has a good add-on for MS-Word to format your references (Docear4Word). If you are using MS-Word on Mac, or LibreOffice or OpenOffice, you would probably favor Zotero, because Zotero offers add-ons for all major word processing software and the add-ons have more features than Mendeley’s. When it comes to social networking and embedding publication lists, Mendeley is the reference manager to choose (or look at Researchgate and Academia.edu). When it comes to collaboration, you should look at Mendeley and Zotero if you want to collaborate with others who are using Zotero/Mendeley; but keep in mind that Mendeley’s team plans are quite pricy. If you want to collaborate with colleagues who use a different reference manager than you, or if you don’t want to spend money for collaboration, or if you don’t want to store your data in the cloud, look at Docear. Finally, if you want an all-in-one solution that also allows basic file management and note, task & general information management, go for Docear.
Please, let us know what you think and share your ideas and thoughts in the comments! Tell us what you like most about Zotero, about Mendeley, about Docear, about …, and let us know what you like least!