Thing 7: Reference management tools


photo credit: stevenbley: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although you may or may not consider them ‘social media’, reference management tools are one of the single most useful digital tools for a researcher today. Gone are the days of painstakingly changing each of your in-text citations to a footnote, or changing each full stop in a reference to a comma because a journal required it. Online reference management tools allow you to:

  • import references from different sources (e.g. websites, library catalogues, bibliographic databases)
  • manage and/or edit the references once they’re in the system, and add manually any references that you cannot find online
  • export references into a document, either as a single bibliography, or individually (often called ‘cite while you write’) which generates a list of references.
  • format the bibliography according the referencing style of your choice, and re-format if/when necessary

There are a number of commercial products out there, some of which you may have heard of or be familiar with. Endnote and RefWorks are two of the most common.

There is a quick how to guide for endnote here

For information from the University of Surrey see this website with handy links on the right hand side and information on how to get the programmes.

There are also free reference management tools, and we’ll focus on those today. If you’re interested in a comparison of reference tools before you make your decision, there’s a lot of information on Wikipedia here

There are lots of reference management tools, but for this Thing we’ll look at a few of the free ones: Zotero, Mendeley and Colwiz. If you’re not already using a reference management tool for your writing, we encourage you to try out one of these tools (or give RefWorks or Endnote a go). If you don’t feel that you need to store or manage references at the moment, we still encourage you to read about the tools and explore their sites to get an idea of when they might be useful. When late stage PGRs were asked for their one piece of advice for new starters they overwhelmingly spoke about using reference management tools as early as possible.

Zotero is an open source tool that started as a plug-in for Mozilla Firefox but is now available as a standalone application compatible with the Firefox, Chrome and Safari. It’s free to use, although there are premium options available for a subscription fee. You will need to install Zotero Standalone if you wish to use Zotero to add citations to documents in Microsoft Word.

Zotero provides a great quick start guide on its documentation page, and Sharon Howard has built a Zotero Wiki resource for a British Library course. In addition to the standard import/export tools, you can also attach files or notes to references, sync multiple computers with your account, add items by ISBN or DOI, and assign collections or tags to your items to help you organise them. Zotero also offers mobile apps.

Zotero takes advantage of its syncing and online capabilities to offer social networking; you can create groups and share your reference lists with others.

Mendeley also requires you to create an account and download the programme, but it’s a desktop feature that avoids the issue of browser compatibility. Like Zotero, Mendeley offers a free version as well as the option to pay for premium features. Take a look at its getting started videos to get a feel for how it works.

Mendeley offers some great tools beyond the basics. If you are starting with a great deal of files you want to organise (rather than researching from scratch), you can pull data from your computer into Mendeley. You can also use Mendeley’s PDF editor to annotate your PDF articles. Like Zotero, you can sync your account across various computers and the cloud. There’s also an iPad/iPhone app.

Like Zotero, you can share your references with others. Mendeley takes this one step further by allowing you to set up a closed group and share full-text articles.

Colwiz focuses on collaborative work as well as reference management. Although not exclusively for scientists, it takes a scientific focus and offers support for referencing in LaTex as well as Word and Open Office.

Colwiz also offers desktop and web-based services, although some features are only available on the desktop version. Colwiz’s real strengths come in its collaborative tools. It has features to help manage team schedules and tasks, including slightly more sophisticated groups, personal and shared calendars, team task management and more. Users can also set up research profiles (much like a Facebook or similar profile) and add contacts.

Exploring further
Try using one of these tools to add citations and build a reference list for a short paper. Can you import your references? Try changing the reference style after you’ve started.

Sign up for our Experience exchange
Experience exchange – reference management software.  Putting experienced users in touch with researchers who would like some help

Reference management software is highly recommended for researchers. Indeed PGRs asked “What do you wish you had known when you first started” nearly all comment on getting reference management organised early.

“Get/learn/love reference management software”

“How important citation software is (I used Zotero –”

“The value of the understanding , knowledge and experience of certain activities including presenting your work, use of software such as Endnote, use of figures and cross-referencing in Office (really good to get these things under your belt at an early stage – which I did and it has been a huge benefit and time saver).”

As you are likely already aware there are numerous different software packages to choose from: EndNote, RefWorks, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley … If you are still choosing, it is good to chat with your supervisors and colleagues about which they use.

If you have queries or get stuck, there is library support for RefWorks, and all packages have guides and help online.  However, being able to chat to an experienced user would be ideal.  So, we would like to set up an experience exchange to help put experienced users in touch with fellow researchers who would appreciate some help.

How to get involved if you are experienced in using a reference management system and would be happy to help others:

  1. Please email with your name, email address, and discipline area, stating that you would like to be included in the experience exchange and which software you are happy to chat with people about
  2. We will store your details on a spreadsheet
  3. When someone has a query and would like a chat about the software you are familiar with, we will put you in touch via email (matching for discipline area, if possible)
  4. You can then arrange to meet in person, chat on the phone, email, or Skype / Facetime – whichever you prefer
  5. If at any time you would like to be removed from the spreadsheet please just email us at and we will remove your details

How to get involved if you would like help with a reference management system:

  1. Please email asking for help via the experience exchange and stating which programme you would like help with
  2. We will check who we have available to help you and put you in touch via email (matching for discipline area, if possible)
  3. You can then arrange to meet in person, chat on the phone, email, or Skype / Facetime – it’s up to you to arrange this
  4. Please remember to thank the researcher profusely for their help!
  5. Once you are an experienced user then please volunteer to help others by following the steps in the section above.




8 thoughts on “Thing 7: Reference management tools

  1. I have been using RefWorks. I am quite contented with it although I had a little problem a few weeks ago. I could not log in with my details, and the system asked me to re-register. However, it is solved easily when I sent an email to the RefWorks group and told my problem. They sent me a password-reset email. It is so easy to import references and I would recommend it


  2. It is nice to hear that the refworks group were so quick to help you. There is often help or forums online for all sorts of programmes and people are amazingly generous with their time.


  3. I’ve found Evernote to be of most use as I can import my Kindle highlights (with all pertinent citation information). I’m also torn between EndNote and Scrivener – both have been highly recommended and look very efficient. Aas I do more writing, I expect I’ll settle on the one most useful for me.


  4. I was using Refworks before and was thinking that I would never change it for any other reference software. However, I came to know about Mendeley during one of the RDP workshops. It caught my interest and the first time I used it, I found it much easier to add pdf files into it. Similarly, one big plus of mendeley is that you can download the referencing style you want when you are online, and you can use it anytime because Mendeley automatically saves the reference style inside the C drive.

    Liked by 1 person

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