How to select a reference management program

Nine questions that can help you find the perfect fit

Photo credit: Lynne Dahmen on Unsplash

It’s not easy to find just one pair of shoes that’s right for every occasion. The same is true for reference management software. There’s still no one-size-fits-all solution that appeals to everyone and that can help with all academic tasks. That’s because each person will use the software in different ways, need different features, and have a different technical setup already in place.

So, how can you find the best possible software for your needs?

We’ve put together a list of nine questions that can help, whether you’ve never worked with a referencing tool before or if you're looking to switch to a new program:

  1. Which operating system and word processing program do I use?

    Before picking a tool, take a good look at the your technical environment. Which operating system do you use? Do you want to be able to work with your sources or read articles on multiple computers? What Word processing program do you plan to use to write your papers? Which browser do you use?

    For any tool you’re considering review the technical requirements to check if it’s compatible with what you use already.

  2. Where do I want to save my information: on my computer or online?

    Think about where you want your data to be stored. Tools that are only available online save your data on their servers. Depending on where these servers are located, your information may fall under different data protection laws. Especially if you work in a company or organization, it’s worth checking to see if the tool you’re considering will adhere to your organization’s data security policies. For example, some companies do not allow the use of any cloud-based services. In that case, you’ll need to find a solution that lets you store your information locally on your computer or on a company network drive or server.

    If you have no such limitations, you’ll want to consider the advantages and disadvantages of both storage options. Online tools are great because they allow you to work with your sources anywhere you want, collaborate with others more easily, and back up your information automatically. However, if your internet connection is interrupted or if the company's servers are down, you may not be able to access your information and will have to wait to continue working.

    If you save projects locally, you have the advantage of maintaining full control over your references, PDFs, and comments. However, this control comes with the responsibility to regularly create backups on different devices kept in different places. This way you can be sure that you won’t lose any important information if your computer is ever stolen or if you experience a major technical issue.

  3. What options do I have for exporting my information?

    Before you spend hours adding sources to your referencing tool, check if and how you can get your information and PDF files out of the program again. This is important to consider, since your software could be discontinued or you might decide to switch later on. Make sure that your program supports at least one of the common bibliographic exchange formats such as RIS or BibTeX. It should also be possible to export in text or table format. You'll want to be able to transfer your data with as little extra work or data loss as possible.

  4. Do I want to be able to collaborate with others? Which program do my colleagues recommend?

    If you’re working on a collaborative project and planning to use a tool together with your colleagues, keep in mind that collaboration is usually easiest when everyone uses the same solution. If you can’t all agree, check if the programs are compatible with one another. For example, it might be possible to export from one program and import into another program using one of the standard bibliographic formats (see #3 above).

    If you’re like me, you can’t wait to tell your friends and peers when you find out about helpful new technology since you want them to benefit from it as well. So, it’s worth trying out a program recommended by a peer or friend who knows how you like to work. An added benefit of using the same program is always having someone to turn to if you ever get stuck.

  5. What’s my budget?

    Software takes work: usually, many people are involved in designing, programming, distributing, and supporting a program. The cost for all of this activity can be covered in a few different ways. If you purchase a program that is offered commercially, your license or subscription fees cover the cost of the work involved. Open source programs can be offered free of charge either because developers donate their time or because an organization provides financial support. Other freeware software programs finance their activities through ad revenue or by collecting user data. It’s always a good idea to check the license agreement to see what exactly you’re agreeing to when you start using the software.

    If you’re interested in a program with a price tag, keep in mind that most tools will offer a free test version that you can download to try out the program. If you’re affiliated with a university, check if the program is offered for free under a site license.

  6. Can I import information from the research databases I use most often?

    In addition to meeting the technical requirements, your citation manager should also play well with other important services you use for your academic work.

    One important consideration is whether you can import information from research databases or library catalogs you use frequently. If your database can export to one of the more widely-used formats, most referencing tools should have the ability to import this information. Some will even allow for searching databases and catalogs from within the program. With other software you will need to export references from the database and then import them into your reference management program using an import filter. If you don’t see a way to export sources from a database you need, get in touch with the database’s support team to request an export filter.

    Whatever type of import your tool offers, always make sure to compare the information you’ve imported with the actual source since mistakes can happen.

  7. Is my citation style available?

    The main reason many users work with a reference management program is so that they can more easily cite their sources. As long as the reference information saved in your project is correct (see #6), a referencing tool can instantaneously create accurate citations and bibliographies in the style of your choice.

    Unfortunately, there’s no one citation style that’s the “right” citation style. Nearly every journal, university, department, or publisher has its own ideas about how a bibliography should look. For this reason, you should check if your program offers the citation style you need. If you know you’ll likely need to use many different citation styles over the course of your career, pick a program that offers many different styles for download.

    Keep in mind that “house” styles used only by a university department or an individual company will likely not be available. If you need to use a special style, check if the referencing software offers the ability to create your own citation style or customize an existing style.

  8. Is the software user-friendly?

    This question mainly boils down to your expectations and personal preferences. For example, you may dislike a program based on its design alone. Perhaps it’s overly complicated or you find yourselve searching for features that are in another spot than you would have expected. Make sure to pick a program that is visually appealing to you and that you enjoy using, since you might end up sticking with it for a long time.

  9. Does the program offer all the features that I need?

    Across programs, there are many features that are of benefit for most users, such as database imports (see #6) or automatic bibliography creation (see #7). Beyond that you should think about what other specialized features could support your workflow. For example, you might be an organization freak. If so, you’ll likely want your program to have features such as tags, folders, highlights, notes, or task planning. When researching solutions, you'll also likely to discover additional helpful features you hadn't considered before.

Once you’ve gone through these nine points and clarified which criteria are important to you, comparison tables can help you start narrowing down your choices. Wikipedia is a good starting point, as it offers a comparison of many different programs. Some libraries also offer in-depth comparisons, such as the Technical University of Munich.

How did you select your current reference management program (Citavi?)? Which criteria were especially important for you? We look forward to hearing from you on Facebook.



Created by: Jana Behrendt – Published on: 7/2/2019
Tags: Good to know Reference management

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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