Reflecting on last week’s Innovations in Reference Management event. http://www.open.ac.uk/telstar/event there was an interesting discussion at the panel session around whether libraries should be in the business of providing free reference management software.  The analogy was made that libraries don’t provide free pens (although somewhat ironically the event and venue did!), or free Office software so why should libraries buy subscriptions to products such as Endnote or RefWorks?

I think it is quite easy to understand why libraries might have started to offer such products.  I’d suggest that the train of thought went something like this:

  • Good practice in managing references should contribute to helping to deter plagiarism.
  • Libraries see reference management as one of the Information Literacy skills that they should teach.
  • Reference management software was mainly provided by paid-for products.
  • To encourage students to adopt good practice libraries should provide access to the software
  • Settling on one software package theoretically meant that libraries could concentrate on supporting one product

But, it was suggested and I’d certainly agree, the world has moved on.  There are now several web-based free tools (Zotero and Mendeley for example) and Reference Management features are built into Office 2007 so has come very much into the mainstream.  Users are likely to choose a product that suits them rather than using the product recommended by their course or library.  And they may already have invested in building their references in a tool and want to carry on with it.

I’d suspect that few libraries would now make the same kind of decision, particularly given the pressure on library budgets.   That leads me to wonder about whether libraries would continue with funding these products unless there are other reasons to retain the software.

The TELSTAR http://www.open.ac.uk/telstar/ project’s approach (and I should declare an interest here in being involved with the project) is to build on the RefWorks subscription that the OU Library provides by creating a set of reference management tools within the Moodle VLE using the RefWorks API.   Users of the VLE can store their references in RefWorks and manage them from within the VLE.  RefWorks also becomes a repository for course and library references adding value to the RefWorks subscription.   But the approach isn’t the full answer as although the tools allow users to import and export references they can’t use their preferred tool to store their references but have to use RefWorks.

With bibliographic management tools proliferating libraries have some difficult decisions to make about which (if any) tools they should support or provide. Unless libraries find other ways of using bibliographic management tools I’d start to wonder how many libraries will start to see subscription tools as something they can no longer afford to provide.

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