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Reference management: Get going

What is reference management?

Reference management is systematically collecting, organising and using references to sources. How to do this in the most efficient way depends on the type of sources you use most frequently and also on your personal workflow and preferences.

Why reference management?

Good  reference management is an enormous help in retracing  what you have seen and read. It also helps you to reuse, add annotations to and share your references. Moreover, it leads to accurate citations. In short: good reference  management enables you to work more effectively and efficiently. 

Ways to manage references

There are many ways to save and organise (references to) sources/literature:

  1. To save print/hardcopy versions of papers and books
  2. To download full text publications and saving them in folders on your hard disk or in the cloud
  3. Just save favorites/bookmarks in your browser
  4. Just save favorites/bookmarks in a social bookmarking tool such as CiteULike
  5. To make simple lists in a text document, spreadsheet or using general database software
  6. To use a dedicated reference management tool such as RefWorks, Mendeley, Personal Library, Zotero or one of many others

Three tips to work more effectively

These tips will often speed up your work:

  1. Invest in using a dedicated reference management tool if you use more than a handful of references and expect to write more than just one paper.
  2. Use a tool that also supports citing references in your text editor, especially if you write a lot.
  3. Always check and see if the reference data your tool has imported are complete and correct. For some databases and tools there are instances when you have to correct or complete the data.

Tools for reference management

Would Einstein have liked reference management tools?There are dozens of dedicated reference management tools. The best known and most widely used are:

  • Mendeley, a free tool primarily built around a full text workflow, with good synchronisation between the desktop application and web interface, with a built in PDF-reader and strong social functions.
  • Zotero, a free, independent and open source tool, with very good ability to recognise and capture bibliographical data on webpages.
  • RefWorks, a complete tool, licensed by Utrecht University, supported by many search engines and databases with fast and reliable direct export options, but, being a pure web service, sometimes a bit slower and without a good full text workflow.
  • EndNote, also very complete and professional, and with almost unlimited sharing functions, but not free and not licensed by Utrecht University.

There is also the simple Personal Library offered by Utrecht University Library, that combines simple reference management with other library services such als table of contents alerts.

To help you choose the tool that best suits your needs, take a look at our comparison tables.

Whatever tool you choose, it is always relatively easy to switch at a later stage and import your references in another tool.

How reference management tools can help you

With reference management tools you can:

  • Collect bibliographic data from search engines and databases
  • Save and store full text files such as PDFs
  • Organise references in (smart) folders, use tags etc.
  • Annotate references or full text files
  • Share references or files publicly or privately with a group
  • Cite references

Additionally you may sometimes:

  • Profit from (topical) communities
  • Work on the same document with co-authors
  • Share accounts or make multiple accounts
  • Perform advanced tasks such as deduplication

Which tool do you prefer?

Which tool do you prefer?
I am a student and use RefWorks: 12 votes (13.33%)
I am a student and use Mendeley: 18 votes (20%)
I am a student and use Personal Library: 0 votes (0%)
I am a student and use Zotero: 4 votes (4.44%)
I am a student and use something else or nothing: 11 votes (12.22%)
I am a PhD/researcher and use RefWorks: 9 votes (10%)
I am a PhD/researcher and use Mendeley: 16 votes (17.78%)
I am a PhD/researcher and use Personal Library: 0 votes (0%)
I am a PhD/researcher and use Zotero: 11 votes (12.22%)
I am a PhD/researcher and use something else or nothing: 9 votes (10%)
Total Votes: 90