Mendeley is (mainly) a proprietary social network to share basic citation data and research papers. see also

Are there any free and open source substitutes for this service?

A technical possibility: users could collect BibTeX data and a hash and share this information. It would be very useful to have such a free service because every journal provides the citation data in a different format. That includes false field entries, broken files and hidden download buttons on the website.

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    You might find some options here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Scott H.
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 19:44
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    @WilliamGunn your employer can call it what it wants, but the client software is closed, the server software is closed and the data is only open in the loosest sense of the word. If you want the data to be considered open, provide a nightly push of the entire database that can be downloaded without an API.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 10:01
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    I guess I'm confused as to what the question is about. Is the question about open source software that can manage references, or is it about something that does exactly what Mendeley does, but is 100% open source as opposed to only partially composed of open source components, or is it about the catalog, which if you want a nightly dump of 17 TB, be my guest, but available via nightly dump isn't in the definition of open data. Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 20:39
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    @WilliamGunn to be fair I don't know what open data really means, so I asked over at OpenData.SE.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 11:07
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    Jonas, do you only need the software to be open source software? Or do you also need the data to be open data (freely reusable license, such as CC-BY-SA or CC0)? By data I mean everything that is shared between users, presumably citations and "social" information.
    – nic
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 11:22

8 Answers 8


The only alternative that comes to my mind is Zotero:

  • It is open-source,
  • it comes as a standalone application or as a web-based version with Firefox, Chrome and Safari connectors,
  • it integrates with Word or OpenOffice,
  • it syncs with the Zotero server,
  • it has BibTeX export,
  • and more.

The Zotero standalone client is cross-platform and open-source (AGPL licence), and it can be run on its own or synchronized with the web version. The web service is free to use up to a fixed storage quota, with paid storage available, and there is an open-source implementation of the dataserver available if you want to roll your own. The local client stores its data in SQLite format so in principle your data is not locked in, but the database is relatively hard to trawl externally; however, since the client is open source there are relatively few future-proofing concerns.

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    Is it truly free? I think that the client only is; the server is proprietary. Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 12:27
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    What functions don't work without the server? Except syncing to the server, of course?
    – matth
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 12:34
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    You can run a WebDAV server, no sweat: github.com/fishburn/phpZoteroWebDAV Commented Aug 2, 2013 at 15:44
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    @FedericoPoloni I think you are misinterpreting the "free" in free software: Zotero is still developed and distributed under AGPL. That does not mean that the developers may not charge for their server services. Furthermore, there is the possibility to run your own WebDAV server as Tony pointed out. Commented Nov 20, 2013 at 10:03
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    @FedericoPoloni First, Zotero itself provides some sourcecode for running a dataserver. Second, the Freemium storage and syncing service by Zotero Server resembles Mendeley very much. The other reommended open source software BibDesk has no server or sync functionality whatsoever and I do not know of any open source software which is an original desktop reference manager which comes with that funtionality (of course, there are open source web-based reference manager). Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 14:01


Haven't tried it yet but https://www.docear.org/ seems to stand out as one of the leading open-source alternative to mendeley.

Docear is basically a marriage of JabRef and Freeplane. It uses JabRef as a backend for its reference management and Freeplane to organize references, annotations you make in the pdf, and any other information (including images, links and crossreferences) in a mind-map.

As the original author of this answer pointed out it is indeed open-source—licensed under the GNU General Public License.


I really liked Mendeley's potential but got frustrated with both their pricing model (maybe I just never learned how to use the software correctly) and it consistently butchering imported BibTeX entries.

I've been a pretty happy BibDesk user for a long time, it is true open source software, but unfortunately it has not been ported outside of the OS X environment, so this is only a qualified answer.

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    BibDesk, indeed, is an excellent tool. It doesn't offer a built in syncing feature across computers, but this can be achieved in other ways such as Dropbox or git. I highly recommend BibDesk!
    – crsh
    Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 12:41

I have tried any number of reference management programs (from EndNote to Mendeley and back), and have come to the conclusion that the most important criterion is that the reference manager directly, natively writes in .bib, or some other text-based, open-source format.

This has several advantages:

  • no proprietary or otherwise lock-in
  • future-proof
  • fast and robust
  • if all else fails, you can always fix it "by hand" in a text editor
  • works well with LaTeX, no "lost in BibTeX-Export" problems
  • works nicely with versioning software (such as git), which requires text files for meaningful diffs.
  • especially with git, you have maximum peace of mind about just what exactly is happening with your library.

This leaves a pretty small number of editors:

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    I love jabref. Hasn't let me down yet.
    – Kallus
    Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 3:42

We have developed an open source solution, downloadable from GitHub at https://github.com/scientilla/scientilla, that allows users to collaboratively share and refine their scientific bibliographic metadata.

The system relies on a "peer-to-peer" and "open-data" approach as well as on a "clone-and-refine" algorithm. It can import data from external web services.

The more the system is used, the more the information that flows on the network become clean.

Moreover, using Scientilla, any user can obtain the whole metadata shared through the network.

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    I visited your website. I am just feeling that your website lacks some snapshots of the software you have developed.
    – enthu
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 7:48
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    link die (domain expired)
    – Haha TTpro
    Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 10:17
  • Update on link. Domain simply contains a banner indicating that it's been parked ("reserved for a client").
    – Rob Hall
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 12:02

Finally I found I, librarian on http://i-librarian.net/ which is a kind of mixture between Filestorage-Server, JabRef and a personal open source Mendeley server.

Interested users may try the demo account on the website.


In creating such a system, the cost of the software and the expense of running the server(s) to host the data is microscopic compared to the expense of the army of knowledgeable people checking out references, cleaning up the barely legal (and semantically often complete nonsense) BibTeX entries offered by some journals, knit them up from scratch where not even the above is available.

Better create your central database, share it with your research group. Have everybody chip in by adding references to interesting papers found while browsing, whatever they cite in their publications/theses, and perhaps keep another file with publications generated locally (comes handy when asked for "publications of the group last year" or so). Publish guidelines, enforce them, perhaps occasionally organize a refer-thon to clean up entries and fill out missing details. If you ask everybody who reads a paper/document to add a short (3-5 lines) summary/abstract (they'll have to write one anyway for "state of the art"), a URL or other pointer where to find the document, you create an (at least locally) very valuable resource.

If it grows enough, or as a side product of the work, publish it on the webpage of the group. Might even ask for contributions from outside while you are at it.


No, there isn't anything that is an exact copy of Mendeley, the server, the clients, the API, and the content, but all composed of 100% open source software.

For the record, Mendeley does contain some open source and the API is freely available, so if you wanted to build an application of service to the scholarly community, you'd probably be better off building your own open source client but leveraging the messy and difficult bits that we've already solved and make available via API, such as the metadata extraction and impact tracking bits.

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    The question doesn't ask for an "exact copy," it asks for a substitute.
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 21:15
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    Nearly all software "does contain some open source", but that is very different from "being open source".
    – nic
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 11:19
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    Also, conflicts of interests should be clearly stated! expertfile.com/experts/william.gunn Commented May 18, 2018 at 8:12

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