Reference manager 101: why you need one in your life

I’ve recently started teaching workshops for a first year undergraduate course that aims to teach the students how to construct an academic essay. This term we’re focusing on literature searching, reading, and writing a lit review. Coincidentally, I am also writing my own lit review chapter at the moment. So I felt that this was an appropriate time to write a short post on reference managers and how to keep you reference library in order.

Plenty has already been said about the usefulness of research managers and I encourage you to have a little Google around the subject. To save you some time, here are a few articles & blog posts that I have found useful:

These are just a few of the many articles that will help you find out about what reference managers are and why you should be using them. In short – reference managers will save you time.

This is particularly true for PhD students, who will end up with large reference libraries to keep on top of. But, as I told the first years last week, anyone doing academic research that involves reading papers will benefit from using a reference manager. You’d be amazed how many times during my undergrad that I accidentally re-read articles I had already read. A few months or a couple of years go by and you simply forget what you have and have not read. When you consider that it might take you a couple of hours to read an interesting paper (especially at undergrad when you have yet to crack skim-reading), this can add up to a whole heap of wasted time. Think of all the other things you could be doing – reading additional papers, getting on with writing, sleeping, or even fulfilling the undergraduate stereotype and hanging out in the pub.

So how do reference managers save you time? Well as I’ve said, they stop you re-reading stuff unnecessarily. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Good reference managers allow you to tag papers with key words and let you sort by author/ year/ publication etc, which all massively speeds up the literature-organising and writing stages. Using a reference manager will also improve the efficiency of your literature searching (FYI – this always takes far longer than you think it will) by stopping you downloading papers you already have and by helping you to connect papers and follow the citation ‘breadcrumb trail’.

Finally, the real deal-clincher for me is the assistance that a reference manager gives you for putting citations into the text and for adding your bibliography at the end. These steps are surprisingly time-consuming and the bibliography in particular can be a real headache. Just when you think you’re done, the word count is reached, the text is proof-read, you’re ready to submit – and then you remember that you haven’t done the bibliography. At this point in the past I have just had to resign myself to a good hour of typing out and formatting citations by hand when all I want is to be done with the damn thing and free. Nightmare. But not so with a reference manager; all I need to do is click ‘add bibliography’ and voila, a complete and properly formatted reference list magically appears at the end of my paper. As those well-known (in the UK at least) meerkats have it: ‘Simples’.

Now I’m not going to harp on about the reference manager I like or dictate to you which one you should choose. This is a matter of personal choice and I suggest that you have a look at a few, maybe download a couple to try out, and then choose the one that works best for you. All I’ll say is that it’s a good idea to pick one and stick with it because changing part way through a PhD/ Masters/ undergrad will be a hassle. To help you get started, here are four of the most widely used reference managers:

  1. Endnote
  2. Mendeley
  3. Qiqqa (this is what I use but again this is matter of personal choice)
  4. Zotero

For a full list you can check out the reference manager comparison table on Wikipedia. Happy literature organising!

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