Tech tools for EAP students: Mendeley

When I show students and teachers Mendeley, I normally get two reactions. The first is, ‘wow, that’s amazing’ and the second is ‘I wish I’d known about it sooner so I could have used it for my degree/masters/PCGE/Diploma etc’

So what is it? Well, it’s a web service that stores all your PDF articles and references in the cloud on your Mendeley account and these can be accessed on either your computer or mobile device through the Mendeley app. You can highlight and annotate articles on any of your devices and they’ll synchronise across to any other device. So, you can makes notes on an article on your tablet and when you move across to your laptop, they’ll be there for you to view.

mendeley desktop view

With Mendeley you can view all your articles and make notes on them

Mendeley can also generate references in hundreds of different citation styles so you can easily insert them into an essay, presentation or blog post. It even has a special plug-in that connects your Mendeley library to Microsoft Word. When you’ve connected them, you can add in-text citations automatically to your writing and then generate a bibliography at the end. You can see in the video below a speeded up version of this process

Mendeley also has a rather nifty browser bookmarklet so you can quickly send references of webpages or all the articles in a Google Scholar search directly to your account. You can see a picture below of what happened when I clicked the bookmarklet when I was on a Scholar search page. It gives you the option to choose which references and articles to download. This is incredibly handy.

mendeley web plug in

The mobile app is particularly well designed and available on both iOS and Android. While it has more limited functionality than the desktop programme, it is really handy for reading articles and annotating them, particularly if you use a tablet that has a large enough screen to accommodate a PDF. There’s nothing better than lying on a couch marking up a document, then moving across to the computer and finding all your highlights and annotations already there.

Mendeley on Android lets you view and annotate PDFs

Mendeley on Android lets you view and annotate PDFs

And the best news is that’s it’s completely free, at least up to 2GB of storage of articles. More than that and you’ll need to move onto one of their Premium plans, though for most students 2GB is likely to be more than enough given the size of PDF articles is generally quite small normally in the 0.0–1.5 MB range. Even if they do start to run out of space, they can always delete old articles and keep them somewhere else on your computer until you need them.

There are other services available to help with article and reference management, but from my fairly limited comparison shop, Mendeley had the best combination of price, ease of use and depth of functionality.

Endnote is probably the most well known reference management software out there, but I found it horribly complicated to use and found myself clicking aimlessly around the interface trying to work out what to do. With any software, if I can’t work out how to use it within 15 mins then I’ll abandon it as I know that a) little thought has been put into the user experience and b) I would struggle to clarify to my students how to use it. There’s also the not inconsiderable issue of the price. It’s possible that your institution has already set up some kind of agreement with Endnote for your students to get it for free or at a discount, but if not, then it’s going to cost $250 (about £175). Ouch.

Zotero is a free open source alternative somewhat similar to Mendeley but seems to lack the mobile integration (source) to make it work across all your devices seamlessly.

ReadCube seems to be a recent arrival in this space. I did download a trial for it a while ago and while it’s very slick, there’s a lot of functionality missing such as syncing across devices unless you pay for the Pro account ($55 a year).

At our centre, we make a point of training our pre-sessional students to use these referencing tools. We – well me really – believe that EAP students need all the help they can get to organise and streamline the process of making notes on articles and then generating references for their essays, theses and dissertations. One thing they don’t need is to have to devote hours to typing out each reference individually, time that could be much better spent actually writing the essay itself.

Some teachers have expressed reservations about this, saying that these tools aren’t 100% accurate but students rely on them to do ALL their referencing work for them and never check. That’s absolutely true and one of the reasons why I insist we do training with our students is to make sure they recognise the importance of checking the references generated by the software and to not wholly rely on it.

But at the same time, the idea that they shouldn’t use these tools is ridiculous. Given proper guidance and training, these reference managers can save students hours – possibly days – of work and free them up to focus on the essay itself. Remember this is simply the process of generating the references (either in-text citation or end references), and this is essentially busy work that – if possible – should be automated through the computer. The process of understanding why we use sources and how we integrate them effectively into our writing is a deep skill that needs to be developed over time with the help of a teacher.

I do find it odd that universities don’t seem to have any consistent system of training for students on these tools, or at least mine doesn’t. The University of Sheffield makes it available through their software download centre, but we don’t really make a huge fuss of it on our website. If I was a student and I’d got to the end of my degree and later discovered that the hours spent looking up the names of publishers and deciding whether there needs to be a comma before the date of publication could have been avoided, I’d have been pretty annoyed!

Now, the bigger question is whether the EAP Centre at the university should be responsible for training students to use these tools. I have discussed this in another post but in essence I think we do, though there should be a dedicated person at the centre whose job it is to organise this training.

What do you think about this? Do you think we should recommend these reference managers to our students and give them training in how to use them?

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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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