So far I have lived in the grey zone where the investment that would have been necessary to start using a reference manager appeared just a wee bit larger than the hassle of not using one. But after this Monday I am coming round to it.
The problem that reference managers solve is not so much having to add references to a manuscript per se - one still has to remember which was which to selected the right one, after all - but rather constantly having to format and reformat reference lists at the end of manuscripts. Every journal has its own idea of how a reference should look like. A few examples:
Smith A, Miller B, Ngyuen C, Kim D, 2009. Some paper title. Journal of Research 15: 42-48.
Smith A, Miller B, Ngyuen C, Kim D (2009) Some paper title. Journal of Research 15: 42-48.
Smith A, Miller B, Ngyuen C, Kim D (2009) Some paper title. J. Res. 15:42-48.
Smith, A., Miller, B., Ngyuen, C., Kim, D. (2009). Some paper title. Journal of Research 15: 42-48.
Smith, A., Miller, B., Ngyuen, C., Kim, D. (2009). Some paper title. Journal of Research, 15, 42-48.
Smith, A., B. Miller, C. Ngyuen & D. Kim (2009). Some paper title. Journal of Research 15: 42-48.
Smith A et al., 2009. J. Res. 15: 42-48.
And all possible combinations of the above and more! You can imagine that having to manually format all this for dozens of references gets tedious at some point. A reference manager does all that automatically for you, but of course you first have to import into it all the references you need and you have to provide it with the correct style information for the journal you want to submit a given manuscript to. And because I hopped so much from one study group to the next and from one methodology to the next during my career it never seemed profitable to import references and double check them to use them only in one, two or perhaps three manuscripts.
Because I now expect to work on the same plant family for a long time, and after having gone through a particularly annoying bit of reformatting, I have decided to start using the freeware reference manager Zotero with which I had already dabbled a bit a few years ago. Still, the trouble is the same as what put me off then:
If you don't want to enter all references manually, the easiest way is to import them from a website. Now Zotero is actually really clever at this: if your browser displays search results from Web of Knowledge or Google Scholar, it can open a list of boxes for you to tick and import several references at the same time. Unfortunately, Web of Knowledge finds only a ridiculously small percentage of the references I need and Google Scholar is stupid. I spend a distressing amount of time correcting what is imported from GS because it may provide first names as part of the family name, cities as publishers, paper titles or author names in ALL CAPS, and so on. Still, if I use the same references often enough it will hopefully be worth the effort.
The second problem is styles. Here it would probably pay off if I just invested the money to get EndNote instead, but I want to give Zotero a chance, and the Zotero style repository is simply missing most systematic botany and plant taxonomy journals. I assume I will in time have to figure out how to edit styles for my own purposes.