Why You Should Use a Reference Manager

The bane of most academic writing is the bibliography. You’re writing a paper, an assignment, a thesis and the tedious typing and retyping of references to articles, books, book chapters, papers, etc., comes back to haunt you!


That’s when you need a reference manager. A reference manager will take care of most of the chores of notes and bibliography management for you.

What is a Reference Manager?

A reference manager is a program that allows you to store all kinds of sources with the relevant bibliographical information, notes, and what not. It will also store all your pdf’s, your notes, etc. in one place and then, provided you use a compatible writing program, generate bibliographical data in footnotes and biographies automatically. It is your digital library, your repository of texts (books, articles, book chapters, reports, etc.) but with lots of added bonuses.

A reference manager is not just for scholars, it is a great time saver for even the occasional writer or students in high school and college.

How Does It Work?

First step, you get the bibliographical information into the reference manager. This is actually quite painless. Most reference managers can import all the relevant information from on-line database such as university library databases, the Library of Congress, Amazon, etc.

Then you place the code of the reference you are using at the appropriate place in your note or main text. How you do this varies with the reference manager and the writing software you use.

Then you tell your software to automatically generate the notes and the bibliography in format that you need (Chicago, APA, Turabian, SBL, etc.) and that’s it. Well, ok, you may have to do some tinkering here and there, but most of the work is done.

Here is an example with Word and Bookends.

Why Should You Use a Reference Manager?

After all, few people use them. Lots of students, teachers, scholars and other writers do fine without them and are not even aware of their existence. The little video above should be convincing enough that a reference manager is a game-changing software. These are just some of the many other advantages of using a reference manager.

  • Easy import of bibliographical information. In most cases you will not have to enter the data manually.
  • Once the references are entered in your manager, you will never have to type them again.
  • A reference manager stores not only your bibliographical information, it can also store your reading notes, pdf’s, etc. in one location.
  • Better organization of your references by categories, keywords, etc. with powerful search capabilities.
  • Ease of use. You can even just copy-paste the formatted reference.
  • Many different reference formattings are included in your software (Chicago, APA, …). You can even create your own format.
  • Ease of use of pdf’s.
  • Syncing with other devices if you reference manager is up to it, which most are nowadays.
  • Your references are always with you and available.

Which Reference Manager Should You Use?

A whole bunch of choices exist.

See the comparison on Wikipedia.

The most widely used reference manager is Endnote. In the opinion of many it is not the best and the cheapest one and their customer support is not stellar. It just happens to have been early on the market and have a quasi-monopoly on Windows. Like a lot of people on Mac I use Bookends and am very happy with the software and the very reactive support it comes with.

You can also try free managers like Bibdesk, Zotero, etc.

Your choice really depends on the environment you work with (Linux, Mac, Windows), your budget, preferences, the type of references you use most, the requirements of the institution where you study and/or teach, etc.

Since most reference managers can import/export from one another choosing one solution does not prevent you from switching to another one later on.

Choose a manager that works with your writing software. Bookends, for example, works with Word, Mellel, and Scrivener.

You can also use the reference manager that comes with Word, but it is much less powerful than stand-alone solutions and keeps you confined within one MSOffice (see the tutorial for Word 2011 here.

Go Ahead and Try One

Even if you’re write only occasionally, using a reference manager is one of the best time-saving and efficient organization decision you can make. Once you get the gist of it–it’s quite easy really– you will never regret it. It is one of the best investments you will ever make.

You don’t have to use a reference manager. But then, you could write with a typewriter and use index cards to keep track of your references. Why not write the twenty-first century way?

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