Thursday, April 29, 2010

Using Mendeley for Long-Distance Mentoring

Last week I received an email from a student who's applying for one of Emory's undergraduate research programs. The SIRE Research Partner Program matches undergrads with faculty working in their areas of interest, teaches them research and communication skills through a series of educational workshops, and provides funding or class credit for their hours as a research assistant. This prospective SIRE trainee wants to work with my adviser. Once she joins the lab, I'll be training her in various laboratory techniques and providing some supervision for her day-to-day activities. I want to do more teaching and research mentoring, so I'm really looking forward to working with her.

In the meantime, she's asked me for a list of papers that she should read to help familiarize herself with the work we do in our lab. The simplest thing would be to email her some citations or PDFs, but I wanted a more interactive way to bring her up to speed. Papers are always easier to manage once you've talked them over at journal club, and it seems unrealistic to expect a rising college sophomore to understand all of the details in these papers without any help. Ideally, we'd get together regularly to discuss the papers and how they relate to her project, but that isn't possible while she's spending the summer with her family in another state.

So, I decided to create a shared collection with her on Mendeley. Using the free Mendeley Desktop software, I can add papers from my own reference library to a collection that I've named "Summer Reading." (This collection is not public; only the two of us have access to it.) My student can read the papers from home on her own copy of Mendeley, allowing her to familiarize herself with a reference manager (an important research skill!) and communicate with me about her reading list.

I attached PDFs to each reference in our shared collection. Then, I used Mendeley's annotation capabilities to highlight areas of particular interest for her project, and left a few comments in the "Tags & Notes" field to help her focus on the most important points in the paper. These annotations are shared along with the PDF, so my student can follow along easily while she's reading the paper at her computer. I've also encouraged her to add her own annotations as she goes along.

After she's had a chance to read, highlight, and add notes to a paper, she can sync Mendeley Desktop and upload the annotations that she made. They'll show up on my computer the next time I sync my reference library. I encouraged her to include any questions that she has about the papers in these annotations. I think the "sticky notes" will be especially useful for this -- instead of having to quote a paper at length, or refer to "page 7, paragraph 2" in a message, she can stick a digital note right next to the relevant portion of the text. I can continue editing the PDF to respond to her questions, and we can go back and forth as needed.

I did have a little trouble while I was setting this up. This is my first time using shared collections on Mendeley, and some of the documentation on their FAQ is a bit sparse, so I had to go by trial and error. The most important point: In order to collaboratively annotate PDFs, all members of a shared collection must open the collection in Mendeley Desktop, click the "Edit Settings" button, and check the boxes for "Upload attached files to shared collection" and "Download attached files from shared collection." Otherwise, PDFs attached to the references won't show up, and annotations made to those PDFs won't be shared with other members of the collection. These are turned off by default, and until I stumbled onto the relevant menu options, I had no idea how to make attached files show up in the collection. I made one of my labmates join a shared collection with me, then ran back and forth between our two computers a few times until I got it working. It seems obvious now, but I thought I'd mention the solution in case other people who want to try this are as clueless as I am.

We'll see how this works over the summer. If written communication proves insufficient for our needs, I may suggest a few Skype chats to talk things over in real time. Anyone else have suggestions for long-distance collaboration / educational tools?


  1. Glad you got it working, Laura. I guess now might be a good time to mention that Mendeley is working on a wiki to capture exactly this kind of thing, so if you wanted to take a moment to write up how setting up the process worked from your perspective, the wiki should be available soon and I'm sure they'd love to have your contribution.

  2. Excellent! I'll keep my eyes peeled for the Wiki.