Choosing a reference management system


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I've used Zotero, Papers, Endnote, Mendeley and RefWorks.

The first thing to ask yourself is, what do you want to do with your management system?

- do you want to collate references only?

- do you want to have PDFs linked to those references as well?

- what about non-traditional sources: websites, podcasts, videos, TED talks, etc.?

This will determine how much space you need for your reference management system. Some have limits on the amount of space you can use on their "cloud" (server). This is also a good time think about whether you want to work in the "cloud" or directly on your PC: there are web-based management systems and software-based systems.

How will you use it? By this I mean, we use these systems for a reason. they take a long time to set up, but once the show is on the road, it can help you save time on all sorts of things, such as, taking notes on the pdfs, using it to Cite and Write, sorting articles thematically, or exporting bibliographic info into analysis software (e.g., Nvivo) to conduct a literature review or meta synthesis of research in your field

Some important questions for graduate students: Is it free? For how long? How much of the features can you use? Here is some basic information to get you started:

EndNote is very popular among the early computer-literate generation of researchers. It's a PC-based reference management system, so I couldn't use it for many years, but they now have a Mac version.

The University of Toronto offers RefWorks for free to all students, and it is integrated into the online Library Catalogue, so you might want to check out options offered by your institution.

Papers is originally a Mac-based reference management system. And I love their article meta-data search function, which makes it so easy, but last time I used it (back in 2009-ish), it just kept crashing. I tried it again last year, and the same thing kept happening. If you have more up-to-date information on Papers, pray tell!

Zotero started as a web-based reference management system, which means it integrated really well with online article searches, but when I used it, back in 2009-ish, I remember that I only got 5G of space, which means I could not keep many PDFs in there. My friend uses it to keep the references only and she swears by it. She also tells me there is now an App for Zotero.

Mendeley rose to stardom because it is free and a great way for researchers to share resources. BUT they've just been purchased by Elsevier so that's about to change. One problem I encountered with Mendeley is that it doesn't let you export your notes. Finding out about that after you have taken hundreds of notes on all those PDFs can be pretty devastating!

So there are all these little details to check out once you've kind of figured how you want to use the system. I recommend asking colleagues and professors what they use and how they use it (you'd be surprised how creative people will get with their software!). To help you with your selection, some universities have put together great comparative tables, like this one and this one.

There are also a lot of very useful reviews online comparing the difference reference management systems, such as the ones at Docear, the Literature Review HQ, and Grad Hacker.

Tell us what you use and why!

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