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Say Yes to the Reference Manager

Pros and cons of various reference management systems.

June 2, 2015

Michelle Lavery is a graduate student of Biology at the University of New Brunswick, Canada. She has recently started writing up her thesis, and has been waffling between various reference managers. You can follow her on Twitter.

I’ve recently concluded data collection for my degree (insert week-long celebration here), and have rapidly realized that my background literature has been stored in a rather disorganized way for the past few years (i.e. all over my desk and the floor surrounding my desk). As usual, Google has the answer. After clumsily searching “disorganized science papers help please,” I found a wide variety of reference management programs. But what is a reference manager?

At its most basic, a reference manager is your digital filing cabinet. At its most convenient, it is your bibliography creator. But in between, various programs come with various perks—digital notating, keyword assignments, automatic article updates, suggested papers, etc. To the uninitiated, choosing a reference manager seems like choosing the graduate school equivalent of a spouse—and it is. You might need to test some first to find out what you like and what you need. That’s why I’m starting with some of these fabulous and free ones:


Features: You can find out more on their website—it’s laid out pretty clearly.

Cons: Only exports bibliographies to Microsoft Word, OpenOffice.org, and LibreOffice.


Features: The “Ultimate Researcher Toolkit” is explained on their website.

Cons: Has serious difficulty with historical references (i.e. I can’t get any of my fish population estimates from 1858 to upload with proper citations, even when I put them in by hand!).


Features: Again, they’re pretty good at selling themselves on their website.
Cons: They don’t really have a mobile version; however, this can be compensated for with other add-ons.

Once I have an idea of what I actually need and what is superfluous, I’ll settle down with one of the above, or I’ll splurge and pay for one of these swankier variations:


Features: A list of features can be found on their website.

Cons: Expensive! Although many academic institutions have partnerships with this program, so you may be able to get it for free, or at a more reasonable price. You can also try it out for free, for 30 days.


Features: A little less expensive than their other proprietary counterparts, they have just as many features that can be found on their website.

Cons: Obviously the cost; however, there is a 30-day free trial and student discounts advertised directly on their homepage. This was an app designed for Mac, so beware, Windows users—you may not find it as Windows-y as some of the others.


Features: A favorite of the various institutions at which I have found myself, RefWorks has a long list of features found on their website.

Cons: Like EndNote, this can set you back a pretty penny. However, many academic institutions have adopted this program as well, so you may be able to find it at a more reasonable price.

For more information, Wikipedia has come up with an extensive comparison chart you can find here. There are tons of these programs on the market, so be sure to shop around. Also, keep in mind that these programs can be useful when collaborating, but only if you all use the same apps! Some supervisors may also insist on a particular program, so consult with others before purchasing.

Since what I need in a reference manager might be very different from what you need, I’ll leave it to you to play around and find what works best for you. But I’ve been told that when you find the one, you’ll know in your heart that it’s right. And it will be a partnership to last a [graduate degree’s] lifetime. Best of luck with your search!

Do you have a favorite reference management program? What features do you like most about it? Share it with us in the comments, so that we may learn from your wisdom.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Barbara L. Hanson, used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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