Thing 7: Reference management tools


“Everything my eye touches populates straight into my bibliography”
Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Reference management tools are one of the single most useful digital tools for a researcher today. Gone are the days of painstakingly changing each of your in-text citations to a footnote, or changing each full stop in a reference to a comma because a journal required it. Online reference management tools allow you to:

  • import references from different sources (e.g. websites, library catalogues, bibliographic databases)
  • manage and/or edit the references once they are in the system, and add manually any references that you cannot find online
  • export references into a document, either as a single bibliography, or individually (often called ‘cite while you write’) which generates a list of references.
  • format the bibliography according the referencing style of your choice, and re-format if/when necessary

There are a number of commercial products out there, some of which you may have heard of or be familiar with.  Endnote and RefWorks are some of the most common.


Here are some quick video guides to using Endnote and RefWorks.


We also have a general guide to referencing at Surrey, including obtaining and using software.


Different referencing software tends to be a better fit with different disciplines. You may find it useful to find out which your supervisor and colleagues use. For some comparisons between different programmes, Wikipedia provides a lot of information.


“Of course I’ve read Steven’s seminal ‘Reading Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Ruin in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris’. I just can’t remember where I filed it”
Photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash



As well as commercial options, there is also a growing range of free referencing software. For this Thing we will concentrate on three of the most commonly used: Zotero, Mendeley and Colwiz. If you’re not already using a reference management tool for your writing, we encourage you to try out one of these. It may not seem like you need it right now, but when late-stage PGRs are asked for their one piece of advice for new starters, they routinely mention using reference management tools as early as possible.


“Get/learn/love reference management software”


“How important citation software is (I used Zotero –”


“The value of the understanding , knowledge and experience of certain activities including presenting your work, use of software such as Endnote, use of figures and cross-referencing in Office (really good to get these things under your belt at an early stage – which I did and it has been a huge benefit and time saver).”


Zotero is an open source tool that started as a plug-in for Mozilla Firefox but is now available as a standalone application compatible with the Firefox, Chrome and Safari. It’s free to use, although premium options require a subscription fee. You will need to install Zotero Standalone if you wish to use Zotero to add citations to documents in Microsoft Word.

Zotero provides a great quick start guide on its documentation page, and Sharon Howard has built a Zotero Wiki resource for a British Library course. In addition to the standard import/export tools, you can attach files or notes to references, sync multiple computers with your account, add items by ISBN or DOI, and assign collections or tags to your items to help you organise them. There is also a mobile app for work on the move.


Zotero takes advantage of its syncing and online capabilities to offer social networking; you can create groups and share your reference lists with others.


Mendeley also requires you to create an account and download the programme, but it is a desktop feature, so avoids the issue of browser compatibility. Like Zotero, Mendeley offers a free version as well as the option to pay for premium features. Take a look at its getting started videos to get a feel for how it works.


Mendeley offers some great tools beyond the basics. If you are starting with a great deal of files you want to organise (rather than researching from scratch), you can pull data from your computer into Mendeley. You can also use the PDF editor to annotate your PDF articles. Like Zotero, you can sync your account across various computers and the cloud. There’s also an iPad/iPhone app.

Like Zotero, you can share your references with others. Mendeley takes this one step further by allowing you to set up a closed group and share full-text articles.


Colwiz focuses on collaborative work as well as reference management. Although not exclusively for scientists, it takes a scientific focus and offers support for referencing in LaTex as well as Word and OpenOffice.


Colwiz also offers desktop and web-based services, although some features are only available on the desktop version. Colwiz’s real strengths come in its collaborative tools. It has features to help manage team schedules and tasks, including slightly more sophisticated groups, personal and shared calendars, team task management and more. Users can also set up research profiles (much like a Facebook or similar profile) and add contacts.


Exploring further
Try using one of these tools to add citations and build a reference list for a short paper. Can you import your references? Try changing the reference style after you’ve started.

duuude “Dude! You referenced the hell out of that archive recording of a live hurdy-gurdy performance cited in the conference proceedings of a webcast seminar!”
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash


Sign up for our Experience Exchange


Did you know that the RDP team run an Experience Exchange programme?

If you have a particular skill that would be of value to other researchers, we want to facilitate sharing what you know with other. Similarly, if there’s something you’d like to know more about, we’d like to put you in touch with someone with the right expertise.

In this case, consider whether you’d appreciate a helping hand with referencing software, or are already well-versed in using them.


How can you get involved?

If you are experienced in using a reference management system and would be happy to help others:

  1. Please email with your name, email address, and discipline area, stating that you would like to be included in the experience exchange and which software you are happy to chat with people about
  2. We will store your details on a spreadsheet
  3. When someone has a query and would like a chat about the software you are familiar with, we will put you in touch via email (matching for discipline area, if possible)
  4. You can then arrange to meet in person, chat on the phone, email, or Skype / Facetime – whichever you prefer
  5. If at any time you would like to be removed from the spreadsheet please just email us at and we will remove your details


If you would like help with a reference management system:

  1. Please email asking for help via the experience exchange and stating which programme you would like help with
  2. We will check who we have available to help you and put you in touch via email (matching for discipline area, if possible)
  3. You can then arrange to meet in person, chat on the phone, email, or Skype / Facetime – it’s up to you to arrange this
  4. Please remember to thank the researcher profusely for their help!
  5. Once you are an experienced user then please volunteer to help others by following the steps in the section above.


We are also encouraging people to get in touch using the ‘Experience Exchange’ section on Surrey Learn. Feel free to start a thread on any topic, whether you are looking for some friendly advice or would like to help others. You will need to log in to surrey Learn to access this.


“Actually, I’m the guy who invented folding napkins into the shape of a swan. How can I help?”
Photo by Ali Morshedlou on Unsplash

Author: rdpsurrey

Providing personal and professional development opportunities to researchers at the University of Surrey.

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