Quick tip: How to use reference management software

One problem you’ll have to solve at some point in your writing is how to insert references into your thesis.

There are many options in terms of software to do this, but it can be a nightmare trying to get them to integrate with your word processor.

I can’t give specific instructions for how to use each program (I’d rather be force-fed Lego blocks than do tech support for referencing software), but here’s a quick tip that could save you a lot of pain.

Start early, start simple

If you leave your referencing to the end, then you will have potentially hundreds of references across several chapters to insert. If you then try to figure out how to get EndNote to synch with Word for the first time, then you’ll be trying to learn something new by starting at the hardest level, under the greatest time pressure.

So take some time to solve the problem as early as possible in the writing process. Get it working by just starting with 2 or 3 references, making sure they are displayed in the correct format and that the numbering works.

It might take some time to figure out, but once it’s solved and you have a working system on a small scale, it is easy to add references as you go.


12 thoughts on “Quick tip: How to use reference management software”

  1. Hi James.

    Having used EndNote for almost 6 months, I found it tedious and clunky. Zotero doesn’t gel with the Chrome browser.

    I’ve gone back to keeping a basic list in Evernote and adding references as I go, manually. It sounds ridiculous, but by the time one manually enters or corrects references in the software, it’s just as fast and tedious to do it by hand anyway.

    Of course, I haven’t got 100’s of references yet, either! Even so, once you know your required or preferred referencing system back to front, snapping them out on a keyboard into an Evernote doc is every bit as effective as stumbling around with clunky software.

    Just my 2c.


    Michelle (who is not yet a PhD but might be, someday 😉 ).

    • Fully agree with Michell’s comment about keeping your references manual. As a learning technology graduate student, I advocate for the use of technology to save time. However, as a rational human being I recognize that technology doesn’t always save time and, may even, be more work than it is help.
      Thanks for sharing your experience and being a voice of reason.

  2. Hi James,
    It would be better if you have given specific names of softwares. Although every things gas its pros and cons. So I will start with myself.
    I used pdf Xchange viewer but found that it makes the annotations separate / or they are not visible in alternate pdf viewers/ (use of other computer etc.) Hence, now started with Foxit. Its good. Although good thing about Xchangeviewer is it can export the page in pdf as image with custom format and custom resolution. So for some software/tools producing graphs in pdf, it is good option.
    For reference management I have been using the MS words in built tool. Although more copy-paste but end result will be quick.
    3. Will I be in problem, if my ref will go on building till next 2 yrs.

    • I don’t advise on specific software. As you rightly say, everyone has their own preferences. Main point is pick a system and get it working early to avoid big problems later.

      • Thanks for commenting James.
        Is there any software to manage word references list such that automatic entry can be done. Of-course free/OSS

  3. I am using zotero. I have used several others and I would continue to use zotero and recommend to colleagues. I suggest watching YouTube tutorials on how it works to help you get started. Of course, no system is perfect and you will need to tweak citations in the final edits.

  4. Do you have any suggestions for specific reference management apps or software? I have tried quite a few programs, but many seem to not include enough features, or are dependent on web access etc. Is anybody up for posting their favorites?

  5. I would also advice to make highlights on the pdf’s that you carry in your HD, to easily find the ideas that you will cite/afirm/confront in your text….. So having a pdf editor with these abilities is also a good tool to have.

    • I used Ms Word’s in built reference tool n my Ms Thesis.It was good enough to handle the references. the problem was, for me, for every new reference I needed to write each of them trying to find the correct style.
      Now I use Mendeley. Ones I put the reference to its library, it takes all the information from the internet. Of course, I need to check them at the beginning. But I love Mendeley as I can also make annotations, or make notes one my pdf’s, group them to different folders, can use tags, share with others etc and always keep the original file untouched in a different folder. and with its Word add-in , it is really easy to make citations while writing, and reference list at the end.

      But, James is right! the important thing is to start as early as possible and make it work on the go! otherwise, trying to use the apps proven to be the very very best will be waste of time when the time comes to end!!

  6. Excellent suggestion James.

    Might I add – if you are using something like Zotero to get your bibliographic references from library sites it is a good idea to check and correct them as you go along. Bibliographic data harvested from the web often contains spelling mistakes and authorship errors (e.g. someone down as Contributor when they are a Translator). Also, if you like the main words in your book titles to have capital letters, quite a few systems don’t do this.

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