December 31, 2008

Online Reading List Creation Tool? Not!

I'm teaching reference at Simmons again in the spring, and I am pulling together my reading list. (see the Fall 2007 reading list). That list looked nice and meets most of the criteria I have for a reading list:

  • Citations are formatted properly in MLA, and include the name of the database where I got the full-text as well as the date accessed. I am a stickler for good citation style in my classes, and I feel I should model that in the citations I give them.
  • The list is sorted on several levels: first by week, then by topic, and then alphabetically by author (or title if there is no author). This is important because I want students to easily know which readings are due when (tho' some find it confusing that you need to read week 2's articles BEFORE week 2's class), and under what topic.

The downside of this kind of list is that it's complex to maintain. It starts with the citation, which I email to myself, paste into a FileMaker database and fix the metadata, and then export with correctly formatted html, and then paste into the html file, which is finally uploaded to the Simmons server. phew! I'm tired just writing all that out!

It's been 18 months since I taught reference, and I thought there must be a better way. Ideally, I wanted a two-step process to export from the article to the bibliography: 1) find the article and 2) export to bibliography -- while maintaining good MLA citation style and complex sort order. My options seemed infinite, with so many bookmarking and social networking citation sites available. Sadly, none met all my criteria, so I'm back to manually coding my html file.

Here's what I tried. The links go to a few sample articles I wanted to share with my class, along with notes about why each product didn't meet my needs:

  • On the plus side:
    • It's RefWorks, which I encourage my students to use during their career at Simmons.
    • It's incredibly simple to get citations from EBSCO, CSA, etc. into RefWorks.
    • It's possible to create shared folders that anyone can view.
    • It's very customizable, with 15 user-defined fields and an infinite number of ways to format citations.
    • Simmons' RefWorks is OpenURL-enabled, so it's easy for students to get to the full-text of the article, PLUS they get early familiarity with Simmons' ArticleNow!
  • On the minus side:
    • The default view for RefWorks' shared folders is not customizable. The metadata doesn't display consistently across document types (article, book, web page), and the Standard View doesn't display in any recognized format (APA, Turabian, MLA). I wrote the company and was told that it is not possible to modify the Standard View.
    • The inability to easily display instructions for textbook readings in the Standard View (i.e., chapter number, title, and pages for the chapter, along with the book title) was the straw that broke this camel's back.


  • On the plus side:
    • Easy (theoretically) to add citations with a bookmarklet.
    • Citations are online.
    • Easy to add tags.
  • On the minus side:
    • None of the citations I tried to add through their bookmarklet actually loaded. I tried from Scopus, which is on the CiteULike list of "web sites". EBSCO isn't on their list, so I wasn't surprised that EBSCO citations didn't import automatically. That's a deal-breaker, as a large percentage of my citations are in EBSCO's Library, Information Science, and Technology Abstracts (LISTA) database.
    • The ads on the interface are distracting and leave little room for viewing citations.
  • On the plus side:
    • Includes date and time the citation was added to the database. The downside is that it's not in my time zone.
    • The default is to share citations.
  • On the minus side:
    • Not possible to automatically add from EBSCO or other Simmons databases; only via their bookmarklet.
    • The article's metadata is not added automatically via their bookmarklet. The default is to only display the title with a hyperlink to the article. It's possible to add complete citations, but that requires extra steps -- and the point of this exercise is to save time.
    • Lots of red on the page is tiring. Page is kind of cluttered.
    • Extra features like "related"articles and links to others who've linked to the same citation are not relevant to a class reading list.
  • On the plus side:
    • Clean, simple layout with professional colors.
    • Scopus citations imported easily.
    • Nice tagging.
  • On the minus side:
    • It works best with Elsevier databases. This is a problem for two reasons:
      • I have access to Scopus through my main job at UConn, but not through Simmons. So any citations I find in Scopus that I want to use for class have the UConn / Scopus URL rather than a Simmons-friendly (i.e., proxied) URL for easy access to the full-text. I'd have to copy & paste the URLs from LISTA for citations that are in Scopus.
      • Scopus doesn't index some of the non scholarly journals, so I had to manually add Stephen Abram's terrific Searcher article Evolution to Revolution to Chaos? Reference in Transition.
    • Making articles shared was a two-step process: clicking the "group" box AND agreeing to the pop-up that yes, I do want to share this article.
    • Finally, it didn't do well with textbook chapters -- too much manual metadata entry.

I also looked briefly at EBSCO's shared folders and Zotero, but neither seemed easily shareable, so I didn't actually test them. Briefly:

  • I love EBSCO's folders, but if you want to share them, you have to email everyone with whom you want to share the folder, and with 21 students in the class, that's too much extra work for moi.
  • Zotero's got great potential, but as it is now resident only one one browser, it's not ready for a shared class reading list.

I have used a wiki in the past for my source list (which looks a lot like a reading list, since many of the sources are books, and all need to be properly cited). I asked students to annotate each source on the wiki, and that was terrific. However, I still had to format the citations, both in html and wiki style. For next semester, I have put my sources in delicious, and I will use that both as the source list AND the annotation vehicle.

Back to the software under discussion: Please note that I have assessed these tools to be used as a reading list, which is not exactly what they were designed for. I have taught many UConn students and faculty to use RefWorks, and I will continue to do so. It's great for keeping track of citations. Similarly, the other products I've described have great features for researchers and scholars.

Sadly, though, none is robust enough to serve as the reading list for my upcoming class. I am keeping the list in the "cloud" though, using dropbox for its easy, everywhere access. Take a look at the Spring 2009 reading list -- it's in flux, but you might find something fun to read!


Jan said...

Hi Stephanie! If you are interested in research tools with sharing functionality, I suggest you have a look at Mendeley (, I'm a co-founder).

Mendeley Desktop is free academic software (Win, Mac, Linux) for managing and sharing research papers (and also reading lists and references). Mendeley Web is a free research network which lets you access your papers online, discover research trends and connect to like-minded researchers.

You can already create shared groups and invite other Mendeley people to share and collaborative tag and annotate references and research papers. Currently, there's not yet any integration with existing databases or a bookmarklet, but both is on our development roadmap.

Nonetheless, I hope you like our vision of creating something like a " for Research" (

If you have additional ideas/suggestions, feel free to leave a comment in our feedback forum ( or send me an e-mail.

Best wishes
Jan (

Anonymous said...

Zotero's got great potential, but as it is now resident only one one browser, it's not ready for a shared class reading list.

However, it allows a prof or TA to export a class reading list as HTML with embedded metadata & all students with Zotero can automagically import them all.

Anonymous said...


I'm not sure how well it would work for what you are trying to accomplish, but you might take a look at's List function.

Just a thought...
Steve C.

Anonymous said...

I've used all these services and settled on Zotero, because:

a) The import feature seems to work on the widest range of sites.
b) I like the ability to take snapshots of articles and attach PDF files, although I use other tools for annotation.
c) It actually exports in various bibliographic formats (APA, Chicago), which I do not think citeulike or connotea can do.

Apparently there is a zotero beta that allows you syncing and sharing, although I am waiting for a stable version before upgrading,

BTW: I am not affiliated with zotero in anyway.