Making your life easier with reference software


As soon as you enter higher education you will be confronted with the need to write academic essays or papers. A fundamental element to successful academic writing is referencing correctly and I have written an extensive blog post about how to reference correctly. And while I think it is important to understand how to reference well manually, it is also very important to professionalize your referencing the longer you are in higher education and the more references you accumulate over the years. When I say professionalize I mean either developing a system of manually referencing very quickly that works for you (and an annotated bibliography can you help you with this) or drawing on reference software for assistance. Reference software can be tremendously helpful in making sure that all your sources are cited in a coherent style and contain all required information in the bibliography. Basically such software automates the process of compiling a bibliography for you!

This is great news and I got really excited when I found out about these available options. I’m sure most of us know how time-consuming and tedious it can be to sort out your reference list after you felt you had already finished the paper, course work or whatever it may be you had been working on, so a software that automates this for you sounds like heaven.

However, over the years I have tried out a few different reference packages such as EndNote, Zotero and Mendeley myself and my initial excitement was dampened somewhat by a few issues I encountered with all of them. They all share some basic functionality, that is, they allow you to store all your sources in one place and then automatically draw the information that is needed for a reference list from there. However, they all differ in certain ways and you should try to find out what is important to you.

So for instance, I tried using EndNote for some time but the costs of it are enormous and I didn’t want to count on my university providing a license to me for free and then finding me in a situation of having lost all my sources once my university license had expired. So for that reason I would urge you to look at the available free software first (e.g. Zotero, Mendeley).

With Zotero I found it super easy to save sources online through a little add-on button in your browser, meaning that with a single click on the button all the information (i.e. document meta data) I needed to cite this source was already stored in my Zotero database! How great is that! But at the same time I perceived it as quite constraining that Zotero was limited to Firefox, which made me stop using it at one point (though there is new version of Zotero now that allows use in different browsers). Additionally, since Zotero is open-source based it has a big support forum, so if you have a problem with it someone else will probably already have had the same and has received help from the community. Mendeley, for instance, does not yet have such a great support community.

More recently I started using Mendeley as there was a lot of hype around this software and I wanted to give it a try. However, while there are a lot of benefits to using Mendeley such as the folder monitoring feature (i.e. basically you can tell Mendeley to watch a particular folder and as soon as you store new documents in this folder, Mendeley will retrieve the available information from the document and store it in its database), I found the software’s capacity to retrieve information from sources (e.g. pdfs) more than limited. In fact, for most of my references I had to manually go over the automatically stored information, which kind of defeats the purpose of having this feature. From that perspective Zotero always worked much better for me.

So as you can see there is a lot to say about each of them. In this blog post I don’t want to go into great detail describing these three options as there are already a lot of very good and detailed reviews out there. (Please go to this website for a very thorough and useful overview of paid and free citation / reference management software:

Instead, I just want to make people aware that there are solutions out there that can help you manage your referencing better, as many are not aware of these options! At the end of the day you need to try out which one works best for you. Yet there is always a point to be made for knowing how to reference manually. As I said, from experience you should never trust the software completely and always check if all information that needs to be there is there and is correct!