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Christopher Douce

Reference management tools

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 2 Feb 2024, 17:09

When I was doing my doctorate I was introduced to a reference management tool called EndNote. Essentially, it’s a tool to help with your referencing. 

Refencing is a pain. Different publications require references to be done in different ways. Doing computing research took me to other disciplines, such as psychology. There was a striking difference between how referencing was done in, say, a psychology journal, and how things are done in an IEEE journal. All this can be really frustrating an annoying when you’re writing articles for different publications and conferences.

The idea is that you save records of whatever articles and resources you are using during your research (or writing), and after doing this, you can use a Word plug in to automatically generate a set of references in the format of your choice. This way, you don’t have to endlessly waste time editing and adding commas, numbers, and spaces.

It worked a bit like how the Word table of contents feature works. With table of contents, you indicate what is a heading, and then you can ask Word to generate a table of contents at the start of the document. With referencing tools, if you want to use a reference, you add in a citation. When you come to generate a set of references, it will pick up that you’ve used an article, and it will add it to your references list. It will even sort everything into alphabetical order if your referencing format needs that approach.

As well as referencing, I found it really helped my reading, and the process of figuring out what was going on in my research area. I was able to upload some notes about a paper, recording why I thought an article was important, and even when I had added it. You could add keywords, search for authors, order them (and article titles) alphabetically. When I was doing my research, I actually had these paper-based lever arch files with copies of articles I had photocopied from the university libraries. I would save the volume number and section heading in my reference database.

I recently found a floppy disk (yes, I’m that old) that contained all my EndNote references. I think I could still use the data on the disk, but I kind of stopped using EndNote, since I moved away from doing research. I’ve returned to the point where I feel as if I need to return to starting one of these tools again – not to help with my writing (although I might be doing that at some point), but with my reading.

Since I started to use EndNote, towards the end of the last century, I have discovered there are now a couple of competitors: Zotero and Menderley. The mechanisms for finding an using papers have changed: rather than going to the university library, sitting on the floor, and photocopying articles, we now have easy access to extensive online research article databases (if, of course, we are working or studying within a university). What follows are some (short) rough notes about both of these tools.


I began by having a look at Zotero. It wasn’t too long before I found a Wikipedia page that offers a bit more information

It’s interesting to note that Zotero is run by an organisation called the Corporation for Digital Scholarship

I began by creating an account, and then downloading a bit of software that runs on my laptop. This bit of software enables me to save information about references that I’m working with (such as books, journal articles, or anything else). I also mange to install a browser extension plug in (which is called a Zotero Connector), and a Word plug in.

When I open Word, I can see a new menu, which reminds me of my old EndNote days. I can see the Zotero Connector, when I look at my list of browser extensions. I note that there’s a new keyboard extension: Ctrl + Shift + S.

There’s another thing that is interesting: a way to share resources with fellow researchers by setting up something called a group. More information about this is available through the Zotero groups page

One of the grumbles that I have heard is that it might be hard (or harder) to move between different devices (but I don’t yet know how true this is). Whether you need to do this does, of course, depend on how you work. One thing I have seen in Zotero is an extensive set of import and export formats. A long standing format that predates both these tools and EndNote is something called BibTex. With this in mind, and being told that I can move between referencing systems, makes me feel a bit better.


The other tool that is around is Menderley. Unlike Zotero, it is supported by a commercial academic publisher, Elsevier. Like Zotero, you need to install bits of software and some plug ins; there is a bit of software that enables you to save your references. An interesting difference is that to gain access, I needed to formally login to the publishers’ digital ecosystem through the university. It appears to be slick and relatively easy to use. From what I’ve heard, it does provide similar functionality.


A key question to ask is: which one am I going to use? I did consider going back to EndNote, since it’s what I’ve used before, but after hearing that two of my colleagues are using Zotero, and seeing how easy it is to install the various bits of software, I’m going to try out Zotero. 

I’m going to give it a go to produce references and citations for my next TMA, which means I’ve got to figure out how to add course texts and online materials into the Zotero software that I’ve installed. I would also like to know where everything will be stored. Backups are important. I will, of course, be having a good look at the CiteThemRight guidance, to make sure that whatever set of references are automatically generated are in keeping with official university guidance.

A final reflection is that reference management tools can be useful for undergraduate students too – especially for those who are working on dissertations, end of module assignments, and substantial projects. Like everything, do expect to make an investment in time to figure it all out, and to create your own reference database. It’s very early days for me with Zotero, but I’m hoping it’ll make some aspects of my writing easier. As suggested, I’m hoping it will help with my reading too.

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