Using referencing software

I recently discussed with other PhD candidates the use of bibliographic software such as EndNote or Zotero. They were all of the opinion that a well-organised thesis should not need software to keep track of the referencing. They also felt that learning how to use it would take time better spent doing other things. I disagree with both opinions.

People no longer mention word-processing skills or digital literacy on CV’s because it is, to a large extent, assumed. It is vital to remain au fait with current technologies in your career field, whether or not it is an explicitly technological field. In fact, I would argue that it is a professional responsibility to have a working knowledge of the most common tools. So, in any field of research, it is important to learn at least one referencing software and preferably more, in the same way as it is important to learn methodological tools or understand different epistemologies within your field. Therefore, in pursuing a career path in research, I would argue that it is short-sighted not to learn the functions and possibilities of referencing software.

Professional researchers are reading an increasing number of research articles per year (Tenopir and King, 2001), possibly due to the facilitation of online journals and databases. Conversely, while the overall time spent reading articles has increased, the time allocation per article is decreasing (Renear and Palmer, 2009). It is therefore ever more important that researchers (even amoebic ones like myself) work smart – reference management software is easy, quick and gives instant returns in time saved.

Instead of copying and pasting bit by bit every salient detail of the authors, journal, publication date, doi etc., you click a button and that information is automatically stored for you. Many of the reference managers will also download a pdf of the source and connect it with the citation information also by that one click. Then, when writing your thesis, you just type in the first few letters of the author into the add-ins box (if you are using Word) and like magic the appropriate citation appears in the format of your choice.

Many of the software packages store the library remotely, so you can access your library from any computer or tablet. This is incredibly convenient if, like me, you have family in other countries and don’t want to lug a laptop through security, if you want to get some work done on the train, or if you just have several different devices. You can also choose to share your library with someone else – for example your supervisor or a reading group.

For me, however, one of the most appealing aspects of using reference management software is the ability to add your own tags and notes connected to the citation information. These can then be used to call up all the articles relevant to, for example, ‘argumentation’ or ‘psycholinguistics’ and so on. I have also used this capacity as a useful way of ranking articles. I add a tag that says ‘rank 1’ if I feel it is incredibly useful, persuasive and relevant to my research. Conversely, a ‘rank 5’ will be something I consider as mostly un-useful, unconvincing or irrelevant. Again, this means that when writing my literature review I can recall the most relevant and important research according to my own classification.

In summary; the benefits of using reference management software are:

  1. speed – it is much quicker to create a citation using software than manually
  2. convenience – rather than transferring or emailing a document with all your citations, the software will store it for you
  3. organisation and annotation – tagging and making notes easy and connected to citations
  4. professional development – if everyone around you is using it, you most certainly need to be too (and many universities offer training in their favoured software – MIT has a good comparison of the major software packages ).

The only drawback to reference management software, as far as I can see, is the one proposed by my colleagues – learning it in the first place. If you are a student, you are there to learn, so this is part and parcel of that process. If you are a researcher, you are still invested in the learning process, so the motivation to learn and develop should still be present.

Go forth and love your referencing software!


Renear, A. H., & Palmer, C. L. (2009). Strategic reading, ontologies, and the future of scientific publishing. Science, 325(5942), 828–832. doi:10.1126/science.1157784

Tenopir, C., & King, D. (2001). The use and value of scientific journals: past, present and future. Serials: The Journal for the Serials Community, 14(2), 113–120.


One thought on “Using referencing software

  1. Pingback: Open Access Publishing | Aisling Brown

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