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Over the past year and a bit I’ve been working with the team at the OU working on the Telstar project. Earlier today we ran the second Innovations in Reference Management event and coming home on the train I had a few thoughts about the two IRM events (in Milton Keynes in a snowy January and in a much warmer Birmingham today). www.open.ac.uk/blogs/telstar/

Today’s well-attended event in a really nice location in the centre of Birmingham (http://www.studiovenues.co.uk/) covered a wide spectrum of reference management aspects: from digital literacy, through different reference management systems, to referencing for the web and citing datasets, to practical sessions on systems in use.

Before we had the first event in January we did have a moment of doubt that there was sufficient interest in reference management. The answer, with over 100 attendees across the two events (and with more than 300 members signed up to the recently created Jiscmail list Reading-List-Solutions https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A0=READING-LIST-SOLUTIONS) seems to be a fairly unqualified yes. And that got me wondering about what it was that was driving that interest.

So a few ideas about what might be driving that interest.

Firstly, there are an increasing number of different solutions. Increasingly the personal and local systems are being supplanted by web and collaborative ones. Some Mendeley (http://www.mendeley.com/) and Zotero (http://www.zotero.org) come out of the needs of researchers, others such as the Aspire reading list solution (http://www.talis.com/aspire/) come out of library requirements. But there are many more systems and much more interest.

Secondly, there are a range of different people who are interested in these systems – librarians, academics, researchers, information literacy people, technical people and data curators

Then there’s a big information and digital literacy aspect of reference management with interest around fostering good academic and pedagogical practice, around digital scholarship and around tackling plagiarism by fostering an understanding of why students should cite the sources they use.

Next there’s the whole area (and something that is growing more and more important) about reuse, efficiency savings, not reinventing the wheel, improving workflows and about not doing unnecessary or duplicating work

And finally, there’s a lot of innovation in this area. From traditional systems moving to the web or introducing APIs, to the new web-native players such as Zotero and Mendeley, to the challenges around citing new types of material. All of which indicates an area of increasing interest.

So there’s a challenge here. Telstar, almost incidentally, through the two IRM events has managed to help to identify a community of interest and practice. The Reading-List-Solutions jiscmail list may give that nascent community a longer-term voice after the Telstar project ends, and perhaps it is wishful thinking to suggest that ‘Innovations in Reference Management’ might be an idea that should live on?

Thanks to Owen and everyone who has worked on the various bits of the Telstar project through early ideas, through development to the present day.

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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