A tool like any other

What you need to know before using reference management software

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Imagine you want to hang up a picture, so you pick up a hammer to pound a nail into the wall. However, you’re not paying attention, and when you swing the hammer, you miss and hit your finger. Ouch! You might be tempted at first to blame the hammer, but in the end, you’ll have to admit that it was your own lack of care (or perhaps your understanding of physics) that was to blame.

Just like a hammer, reference management software is a tool. To get the best results from it, you as the user of the tool need to know its limitations and how best to operate it. Understandably, new users don’t always realize what common usage problems can occur, so we wrote a past blog post, Rules for Reference Management about how to ensure your source entries are correct.

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In this post we’d like to focus on an even more important prerequisite for using reference management software: knowledge of basic citation and academic writing principles. A recent message from one of our blog readers inspired us to write this post. They lamented that one of their students was flabbergasted to learn that they had plagiarized since they had used Citavi to enter all their quotations. How could this happen? Simply put, the student had failed to distinguish between their own ideas and those of the authors they read while working with Citavi.

So that this doesn’t happen to you, we’ve shared some of the main citation and academic writing principles you should know before working with reference management software. This list is by no means exhaustive, so please share your own ideas with us if you feel we’ve left something out.

  1. (Really) know what plagiarism is and why it’s such a big deal

    If you’re a student, you’re probably groaning right now because you’ve heard about plagiarism and academic dishonesty a million times before. Well, here’s the million and first time, then. The reason you hear so much about this topic is that proper citation is one of the bedrocks upon which academic research rests. Your readers should be able to verify your claims and trace the influences that led you to develop your own ideas. Citing your sources also lets you pay homage to those scholars who came before you, an idea we discuss in our blog post about the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

    It’s easy to think that you know what plagiarism is, since you probably hear about it in every course at the beginning of a new semester. Many students have the impression that they just need to cite anything they quote directly, and they’ll be fine. But there’s more to it than that. Even if you reformulate the gist of an idea in your own words, you still have to cite it. In fact, any time you paraphrase an idea, you need to cite it, since you’re referencing someone else’s idea.

    It’s also important to question whether what you think are your own ideas are truly your own. Ask yourself if they were influenced by something you read or watched. If so, you should cite their source. Our Citavi Guide to writing a research paper includes additional information on the many different types of plagiarism on page 21 – some of them may surprise you!

    Still a bit confused about what plagiarism is? The University of Oklahoma offers an excellent, to-the-point, and humorous guide, which you can download as a PDF here. Also, if you’re ever in doubt, ask. Your university writing center, teaching assistants, and professors want to help you succeed, and they know that you’re still learning how to write. There’s no shame in double-checking with them – that’s how you get better and avoid problems in the future. You don’t want to get to grad school where the stakes are much higher and still not know what plagiarism is.

  2. Be diligent about keeping others’ ideas and your own ideas separate

    Now that you really know what plagiarism is, you’ll want to ensure that you set yourself up to avoid it. The main way to do this is to be very careful in your notes to always make clear which ideas came from other sources (and where exactly they came from) and which are your own. For direct quotations, in which you use the exact words of the author(s), it’s also important to always use quotation marks to set them off and include the page number and source details. This way, if you’re writing your paper in a hurry, you won’t accidentally plagiarize due to not being able to tell if a note you took was your own idea or someone else’s.

    Citavi can help with this process since it offers different knowledge item types. As you read in the preview pane, add pieces of information and ideas to your project as direct quotations, indirect quotations, comments, summaries, and thoughts. Make sure to add the page number or double-check it if Citavi added it automatically from the PDF file. This is an important step, since sometimes the page number of the PDF is added instead of the page number printed at the bottom of the PDF. For books or other sources that you don’t have an electronic copy of, you can also type in your notes for a source.

    Each item has a different symbol and color that appears in the Word Add-In, so as you write your paper, you know what’s a direct or indirect quotation and what are your own comments or thoughts. What’s more, since the page numbers and source information are saved along with your notes, they’re automatically included when you insert an idea into your document.

    But what about the student we mentioned at the beginning of the blog post? Our reader wrote that the student had not distinguished between the different quotation types when using Citavi but had instead used the same knowledge item type to enter all direct quotations and summaries. This led to the student later not knowing which texts were direct quotations and which were their own ideas. Don’t make the same mistake – make sure that you apply the correct knowledge item type according to what each text snippet is. If you need a refresher on the differences between direct quotations, indirect quotations (paraphrases), and summaries, this short guide from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab can help.

  3. Use scholarly sources and understand how to evaluate sources

    In your first university writing course, you’ll likely be asked to use scholarly journal articles and books as sources. Knowing why to use these types of sources and where and how to find them are important skills. Good academic sources can sometimes be found with a Google search, but you’ll also pull up a lot of dubious items and the effort to sift through all those results usually isn’t worth the initial ease. Instead, use the databases your university provides to look for journal articles and search the library catalog for scholarly books and other materials. But don’t leave your critical thinking skills at the door even when using these resources: some databases also include editorials or book reviews, so you’ll usually want to filter your results to return only peer-reviewed journal articles. Your library might also offer some popular literature in its browsing collection or have an education library with children’s books, so check the subject headings when you’ve found a book that looks like it might be a good source and make sure it’s really what you need.

    Of course, as you progress in your studies, you’ll likely also want to use other types of sources in digital format that you find online. These types of sources can be tricky to evaluate, especially as a beginner. We’ve written about this topic before in our post on how to avoid dubious information online. For a more general guide on source evaluation, this one from the College of the Mainland is a good start.

  4. Use primary sources as much as possible

    During your studies you’ll often hear about the difference between primary and secondary sources, and why you should prioritize using primary sources whenever possible. That’s because instead of relying only on someone else’s evaluation or interpretation, it’s important for you to develop the skill of interpreting sources on your own. Of course, you’ll want to also use secondary sources, you just shouldn’t use only them. When you do use secondary sources, for example, if you are discussing how different scholars have interpreted a particular poem over the years, make sure to examine and cite a few different researchers, and don’t only include perspectives that align best with your own interpretation.

    Similarly, it’s also important to only cite works you’ve actually read yourself. If you see a claim or quotation cited by another author, you may think it’s okay to cite the original author yourself, but it’s not, unless you make clear that you found the claim or quotation in the second author’s work. These types of quotations are called secondary quotations and should be avoided when possible. They’re a last resort when you can’t access the original source and should be used sparingly. We discuss secondary quotations in detail in this blog article if you’d like to learn more.

  5. Good writing is not just a string of quotations

    In training sessions for students, I often hesitate to show the Word Add-In feature “Insert categories and knowledge items” with the “Include knowledge items” option. This feature inserts the outline created in Citavi along with all the quotations, comments, and thoughts in a project. Sometimes when students see this feature, they exclaim, “Oh! Citavi will write my paper for me!”

    I’ll then quickly add that this feature is meant to give an overview of where you’re at in large writing projects and to identify where you have gaps and might need to do more research. It’s by no means meant as your final paper! If you do use the feature as the basis for your paper, the danger is that your work will become a bunch of quotations strung together with joining sentences and paragraphs instead of a paper that focuses on your own analysis and ideas backed up by the ideas of others. During the note-taking phase, you’ll usually gather many more ideas than you’ll end up using in the end; your paper shouldn’t just be a garbage dump of everything you once considered using. Instead, it should only include the sources that supported your thinking process and that support the points you’re making in your paper. In other words, you should carefully make the final selection of quotations and ideas to include during the writing process and not before.

    When you’re new to academic writing, it can be hard to know how many quotations and citations are too many or too few. If your university has a writing center, contact them to see if they can advise you on this and other questions you might have about writing style. Also, pay attention to the feedback you get from your TAs and professors. Over time, you’ll develop a better instinct for the balance between presenting others’ ideas and stating your own.

  6. Understand basic citation rules

    It may seem strange for someone who works at a company that makes reference management software to say this, but I believe that you should type your first couple of bibliographies by hand. The reason to do so is to learn how citation formatting works and how to apply your citation style guidelines to the sources you used. This way, you’ll learn what type of information should be included in the bibliography, and you’ll be better able to spot mistakes. Later on, Citavi and other reference management tools can speed up the process of citation and bibliography formatting, but you’ll still always want to carefully double-check your entries against your style guidelines, since mistakes in data entry, special paragraph formatting requirements, special requirements that can’t be automated (like italicizing names of ships) or a recent update to the author guidelines can lead to your reference list not looking as it should. If you haven’t yet developed an eye for when an entry is incomplete or doesn’t look quite right, you might miss some of these issues.

    Also, just like a hammer may have a fault in its design, errors can and do occur in citation style programming, whichever tool you’re using. We at Citavi correct these errors as fast as we can when users inform us of them. It’s just good to be aware that software isn’t a magic solution – it’s made by people, and people sometimes make mistakes.

Unlike a hammer, reference management software is a complex tool. As such, the amount of previous knowledge you need to have to get the best results with it is much higher. If this seems overwhelming, take heart: during the course of your studies, you will get better at avoiding plagiarism, choosing quality sources, and learning when and how to cite – as long as you keep trying.

A good place to start are the information literacy classes offered by your library. You may even have already had a compulsory course during your first semester, but most universities offer additional sessions for how to do research in a particular subject area, how to evaluate sources, how to search databases, and many more topics that will help you up your research game. If you struggle with citation styles and knowing when to cite sources and how to avoid plagiarism, your university writing center is your best ally. Make an appointment with a specialist to go over your specific questions or visit your teaching assistant’s or professor’s office hours to get help.

A closing thought: a standalone class on how to use reference management software won’t help a student avoid making mistakes if they don’t yet have the basic knowledge discussed in this blog post. In Germany, many universities thankfully teach Citavi in conjunction with information literacy instruction. This integration makes sense, since Citavi supports each step of the research process, and the best way to use it is with a solid understanding of these steps. We hope to see this more holistic approach to teaching reference management software spread elsewhere in the world in the future.

What do you think of our tips? Are there any other important skills we missed? Continue the discussion with us and other blog readers under the Facebook post for this blog.


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Originally published January 26, 2021, updated January 18 2022

Created by: Jennifer Schultz – Published on: 1/18/2022

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

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