Mendeley Desktop (for Mac) review

Pros

  • 1GB of free cloud-based storage
  • Public and private groups
  • Tabbed structure

Cons

  • Sluggish synchronisation
  • MS Word plugin requires Visual Basic
  • Temperamental browser plugin search

Whether you are looking to build a repository for a major research project or simply hoping to organise journal articles, Mendeley offers an elegant solution to document management. With 1GB of free cloud-based storage (upgradable to 2GB for £4 per month, 5GB for £8, or unlimited for £12), cross-platform compatibility, and iOS apps, you will always have access to your Mendeley library, but thanks to web browser and Microsoft Word plugins, you will not feel tethered to it.

Mendeley pairs nicely with browser-based research manager Zotero. Now entering its seventh year of development, Zotero handles documents with greater élan; however, many scholars, educators, and students – especially those in the sciences – may find they prefer Mendeley due to its collaboration options.

Accommodating research

After evaluating Zotero, I committed myself to the browser-based research assistant. It was a big step for me. I upgraded my account from the standard storage (a paltry 300MB) to a premium plan (2GB for £15 annually), and even made Firefox my default web browser.

It all happened so fast. Needless to say, when I heard about Mendeley, I was curious, but sceptical. Certainly, I had heard good things about its academic social network, but would I have to start over? And, if not, how much trouble would it be to integrate Mendeley into my workflow?

Mendeley makes promiscuous research awfully enticing. In fact, I was prompted to sync my Zotero library upon launching the application. The word sync, not import, is a crucial distinction: Because Mendeley synchronises with my Zotero, I can add books and articles to Zotero and they automatically appear in Mendeley (the reverse, however, is not true). Mendeley can also watch a folder for new documents (for example a Downloads folder).

Although Mendeley was quick to recognise all of the files in my 350MB Zotero library, synchronisation with Mendeley’s cloud-based storage was another story. It took three attempts to complete synchronisation. This would be less of an issue if synchronisation did not prevent sharing or accessing shared folders. Instead, my testing was put on hold until I had synchronised my entire library with Mendeley’s cloud. Fortunately, the cloud is voluminous for a free service: A gigabyte of online storage goes a long way with PDFs and Word documents.

Local, public, and private folders

Mendeley reproduced my Zotero folder hierarchy. I added folders within folders to see if the software would scale to the demands of a larger research project. While the applications lags more than it ought to (note that I tested it on a two-year-old MacBook Pro), I have no complaints about the elegant user interface. Adding new documents is as simple as dragging onto folders. Mendeley captures metadata from PDFs and accepts notes, tags, and keywords – all of which are searchable.

Mendeley offers two kinds of groups: Public (ideal for reading lists) and private (perfect for sharing sources, references, or drafts of living projects). For free, Mendeley allows one of each – otherwise you need what Mendeley calls a “Team Plan” (£40 per month). This may sound stingy, but do not forget the copious online storage (a gigabyte) and baroque folder hierarchies.

Because public groups only support metadata, they use next to no storage. Collaborators can still proffer sources and add notes. Given the public availability, perhaps I will solicit other feedback in the future. Unfortunately, for those in the humanities, Mendeley is a science-centric ecosystem – a search for “American literature” produced one direct match, “Early American Literature,” with just seven members and 19 papers.

I preferred private group sharing. I invited several colleagues (via email) without leaving the application. Although basic metadata is available through the Mendeley website, advanced features, such as previewing and annotating documents, requires Mendeley Desktop.

Although my collaborators complained about having to install a dedicated application, they quickly praised the tabbed interface (see the above image), through which they could mark up multiple documents in the same window. All edits automatically save to the local library; however, we quickly learned that you must manually click the Sync button for changes to take effect.

Acrobat, web, and word processing

Despite the effortless interface, Mendeley requires patience, whether you’re sending and receiving group invitations, loading PDFs, or synchronising changes. Given the application’s relative youth, I trust that future iterations will improve performance. I also expect Mendeley’s annotation tool – which currently allows users to highlight text, add notes, and rotate pages – will gain further functionality. Although Acrobat recognises edits, extracting a PDF from Mendeley is not as easy as drag and drop; one must export a PDF with annotations through the File menu.

Web browser and Word integrations carry their own idiosyncrasies. At first blush, the Javascript Web Importer shines, especially given its support of 48 different repositories, including JSTOR, EBSCO, and Google Scholar. I had trouble with my browser’s pop-up blocker (I had to enable exceptions for each database) and repository support. For example, I rely heavily on ProjectMUSE, for which there is not (yet) support.

The bigger problem, however, is the disjointedness of the experience; Mendeley trained me to rely upon the desktop application, and it is unfortunate that I could not perform database searches from that perch. Finally, while Mendeley boasts impressive citation support (2,835 citation styles at last count), I spent the better part of an afternoon negotiating the Word plugin. (The plugin, incidentally, requires Microsoft Visual Basic, an Office add-on of no small proportion). Many users, especially those balancing small projects, may favour Zotero’s “Copy to Clipboard” citations.

Verdict

I am not ready to replace Zotero with Mendeley. Why? I want to, but cannot, spend more time in Mendeley Desktop. It is unfortunate that I have to leave the application to search online repositories and generate bibliographies, both of which are far from seamless. Synchronisation also has its hiccups.

Despite these limitations, Mendeley does add impressive social features and more generous free storage. Users looking for more feature-rich solutions, including integrated database search, might consider Papers 2 (£50) and EndNote X6 (£160). However, for those working on educators’ budgets, Mendeley dovetails with Zotero to produce an eminently economical alternative.