Growing evidence to support the theory that multi-authored papers achieve greater impact – coupled with the rise of multinational research studies and a shift towards remote teaching and learning practices – all underline the need for collaborative research tools. Today’s users of reference management software are demanding more than well established features such as comprehensive literature searches, PDF storage, and word processor integration. They want to make their research libraries accessible to colleagues, co-authors and students, and they want to be able to access resources from anywhere at any time.


Reference management tools have embraced this demand in varying degrees over recent years. Many have significantly evolved from their original mission – facilitating high calibre research by helping the academic community build comprehensive, well organised reference libraries and accurately cite their sources – and have harnessed the Cloud and the rise of professional networking to deliver stronger research tools. This article will look at current collaboration features across four reference management tools: EndNote, Mendeley, Zotero and Citavi and compare how each of these facilitates group work and advances collaborative research. We’ll also consider how much further research software providers need to go to satisfy their users’ evolving work practices.

EndNote, Zotero, Mendeley and Citavi all have collaboration features built into their platforms with the aim of letting groups of researchers work collectively on a study or paper. The extent to which each of these tools facilitates the sharing of comprehensive research libraries (including references, PDFs, notes and annotations) varies quite considerably from provider to provider. There are marked differences in many of the collaborative features offered, from the number of researchers able to access a group library, to the type of hosting provided for all associated data.

EndNote has expanded its library sharing capabilities in its latest release, X8. Groups of up to 100 users (previously 15) are now able to access a library shared with them by a colleague or co-author. Although EndNote has both online and desktop components, any user wanting to share their own library or access another’s shared library will need to sync their desktop to their online account.

Data from EndNote’s shared libraries is hosted in the cloud so it’s not restricted to people within the same firewall or organisation. The other benefit this application brings is unlimited storage which means that researchers are not restricted by the size of their library or the number of attachments they can populate it with. For the travelling academic relying on an ipad, or smartphone, you can access your shared library online, as long as you are the owner. However, if you’ve been invited to join a group library, you’ll only be able to access it from your desktop. Users are also restricted to sharing only one library, although they can be invited to join an unlimited number of libraries. Only X7 and X8 users are able to take advantage of the shared libraries functionality in EndNote. And for those who are nervous about the idea of a colleague getting carried away with edits and changes to the library, there is the option to provide invitees with ‘read only’ access. Equally you can revoke access to the library at any time.

Mendeley’s ‘groups functionality’ combines community and collaboration features and gives you the option of public and private modes of sharing. Core to Mendeley’s value proposition is the ‘academic social network’ and its messaging stresses the role of this network (as much as functionality) in driving collaborative research. Creating a Private Group (previously known as Shared Collections) in Mendeley lets you control who has access to the files you upload and all members can actively contribute by editing document details, as well as highlighting and annotating files. There is no limit to the number of people you can invite to a Private Group.

Public Groups are ideal for those needing to broadly disseminate reading lists. You can invite named members to contribute to a reading list in a public group, but you can also allow anyone to join and view updates to the collection. This kind of group is an excellent way of leveraging the researcher community to build exposure for either publications or individuals. But full text papers can only be shared with private groups.

Zotero shares many of the SaaS related characteristics of Mendeley, including the functionality to create both public and private research groups, automatic syncing and storage of PDFs, annotations etc to the cloud, and a large community underpinning its platform. With Zotero, you pay for storage and can collaborate and share libraries with an unlimited number of people. This platform also integrates with Google Docs, taking collaborative research to the next level by combining shared repositories of references, notes and PDFs with applications for group writing.

Cloud applications such as Mendeley and Zotero combine large communities and unlimited group sizes to ramp up collaboration opportunities for researchers as well as exposure for their publications. The automatic uploading of reference libraries and associated content to the cloud – which is then fully accessible online – makes these tools appealing for both students and researchers who aren’t always working from a fixed location. The benefits that SaaS reference management solutions bring to an ‘always on’ collaborative research approach are numerous, but these platforms may still raise concerns for some when it comes to data privacy.

Local hosting answers this specific concern and is used by Citavi for both small and larger team collaboration. Whilst this solution isn’t necessarily going to meet the needs of academics looking to build exposure or conduct research with peers outside of their organisation, it does provide a strong workflow solution for those wanting or needing to keep proprietary research behind their institution or company firewall.

Citavi lets you work with small groups on shared projects at the same time. Projects can be quickly created and saved on a network drive that all team members can access. To facilitate larger group work, there is Citavi for DB server which saves all projects to a (locally hosted) SQL server. As with other reference management tools, the project owner has the power to grant editing or read-only rights to other members to enable tighter control of shared work. Citavi Team enables companies, institutions and individual departments to create and share rich repositories of journal articles and other documentation which all members can draw from for their individual research. It also comes with a string of collaboration enhancing features, including task assignment, sharing comments, ratings and recommendations.

With research becoming ever more international in terms of contributors, and universities increasing their facilitation of distance learning, the need for powerful collaboration features as part of research software has never been greater. And while the global community reach and accessibility that SaaS services provide must have helped fuel the rise in multi-authored papers and multinational research projects, there is undoubtedly still a requirement for locally hosted solutions that deliver powerful internal collaboration features to both academic institutions and private organisations.