Umesh recently discussed reference management using Zotero (slides). One should hardly need to be convinced that it’s better to use any reference management tool than to print everything you read. It might be like considering whether it’s better to write emails or handwritten letters for everyday communication. In one case, there is no search, no ordering and no easy way for grouping, with the exception of making stacks. More, there is an ever increasing blob that physically holds the information, the creation of which involves contributing to unseen deforestation. The paper blob is comparatively much more difficult to copy, to backup, to transmit and to carry.
The paper method for papers also involves various never-ending—and mostly unachievable—chores, such as sorting, stapling, ordering, grouping and filing everything. It also doesn’t set you up to do a number of things that any reference management tool can do, none of which I’ll list. One might counter that at least paper papers are easily and permanently disposed of, such as by transforming them into ash, assuming you live in a place where that’s allowed, or shredding them, if you could be bothered to, or—more likely—by dumping them in a recycling bin, never to be see again.
The evolution of methods that Umesh described, from printing to EndNote and then to JabRef, was likely a reaction to these and other functional advantages, as well as to changing interactions with other tools, such as those for word processing. Switching from Microsoft Word to LaTeX in a sense meant switching from EndNote to JabRef. But even JabRef has become among his non-preferred considering his most recent requirements: free; cross-platform; taggable; open source; and noteable. With these requirements, his reference management tool of choice is Zotero, “a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources.”
Cool things about Zotero include that it “lives” in Firefox and will eventually live in other browsers. Support for other browsers, part of their Zotero Everywhere project, is in alpha. Zotero allows you to capture lots of different kinds of stuff, including books, journals, and other resources, directly. This means you don’t have to move stuff from folder to folder. You can link stuff, such as files for supplemental information, with a given entry by drag and drop. You can tag anything. Zotero has integration with Microsoft Word and OpenOffice, and, like other tools, can format bibliographies in many different styles. It also allows syncing, sharing of your library, and some usage with mobile devices. Multi-user functionality is supposedly there.
I’m assuming you know this already, but Zotero isn’t the only tool in the game. Buried in our cloud-based notes on the future of ETS are Mendeley, Connotea and colwiz. Reference management tools, like so many things, may have that memetic self-reinforcing “I’m this and not that” quality so beautifully captured in the Get a Mac campaign. But then, does Zotero wear the suit or does it wear the button-up?