Research involves writing academic manuscripts that cite other sources. If you deal with multiple citation styles, want to enhance your writing efficiency or encounter reduce errors in citing, you can use reference management software.
Writing academic pieces, legal, empirical, or otherwise, requires justification of your arguments by citing sources where appropriate. You could, of course, resort to manually entering every reference. However, this quickly becomes frustrating when you find that you consistently omitted articles’ issue number, or worse, need to re-submit a manuscript to another journal that requires a different citational style.
The usefulness of reference management
To save yourself a lot of time, effort, and frustration you can opt to use reference management software. Multiple excellent programs exist such as Mendeley, Endnote, and Zotero that enable you to store your citations, and maintain a library of your digital documents. As Gilmour and Cobus-Kuo argued, “we would expect [reference management software] to be able to:
- Import citations from bibliographic databases and websites
- Gather metadata from PDF files
- Allow organization of citations within [its] database
- Allow annotation of citations
- Allow sharing of [its] database or portions thereof with colleagues
- Allow data interchange with other [reference management] products through standard metadata formats (e.g., RIS, BibTeX)
- Produce formatted citations in a variety of styles
- Work with word processing software to facilitate in-text citation”.
In addition to this, reference managers provide additional core functionalities such as the ability to automatically complete references with additional information on an article or book when you provide a DOI or arXiv ID. For example, when you download a publication to a folder on your computer, Mendeley can automatically detect the new publication in your folder, detect its DOI (if it has one) and download the correct information for the citation. Finally, on top of in-text citation tools for Microsoft Word, reference managers sometimes provide in-text citation tools for other word processing software such as LibreOffice, LaTeX, Google Docs or even R markdown.
Arguably, the in-text citation tool provides the most important functionality of the reference management software packages as these enable you to find a reference straight from the paper you are writing, and have the citation inserted according to any numbering, author-date or footnote citation style such as APA 7th, Chicago, or a journal-specific style.
Whilst all reference management software provides core features such as the ability to maintain a library and insert in-text citations to your manuscript in Microsoft Word, software packages vary in terms of their additional features. Moreover, their privacy policies, free storage, pricing plans, availability of applications across your devices, and developer support are all dependent on the reference manager you chose. For instance, two frequently used reference managers (Zotero and Mendeley) are distinct in terms of their learning curve (Zotero provides more features than Mendeley, but is harder to learn), pricing (Zotero is free, Mendeley has a pricing plan above the free storage) and mobile app support (neither provides a dedicated app on iOS).
Both developers and comparison website provide detailed feature comparisons, and will argue they provide the best tool. If you are looking for a specific feature this would be a good way to start. Yet, it might be advised to use identical reference management software as your colleagues. This enables you to create shared libraries in your team, prevents compatibility issues with in-text citations when collaborating on papers and means you have colleagues at hand to ask the practical question.
Fenner, M., Scheliga, K., & Bartling, S. (2014). Reference Management BT - Opening Science: The Evolving Guide on How the Internet is Changing Research, Collaboration and Scholarly Publishing. In S. Bartling & S. Friesike (Eds.), (pp. 125–137). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Gilmour, R., & Cobus-Kuo, L. (2011). Reference Management Software: a Comparative Analysis of Four Products. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, (Summer).
Prasad, M. R. M. (2019). Usage of References and Its Management in Research. Scholarly Ethics and Publishing, (August), 826–845.