Citation and organization Which reference manager is the right fit for you?

A basic reference manager simplifies the process of adding in-text citations and creating bibliographies. A feature rich reference manager may use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scans to identify themes in your PDF file library and provide you with ‘Mind Mapping’ tools to aid in the creative writing process. Most reference managers can import references from websites and PDF files and organize them based on specified metadata; the author(s), year, title, publication, page numbers, and other reference information. References can then be exported into thousands of citation styles including those specific to particular academic journals.


There are many recently updated reference managers, each offering a unique combination of features to streamline your workflow. The five chosen for review below represent two of the best, two up-and-comers, and the institutionally supported Refworks, offered free to all students, staff, faculty, and alumni under the University of Manitoba libraries license. Whereas Mendeley, Qiqqa, Zotero are free and fully functional with an optional cloud storage capacity upgrade, Docear has no payment model to date.

The prevailing wisdom on how to choose the best reference manager is to select the one your colleagues are using, which will make collaboration and the transition to using a reference manager easier. If there is no preference among colleagues, maybe one of the five listed below will interest you enough to give it a fair shot.


1. Docear

Platform: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Web (prototype)


Docear is an open source reference manager that is less user-friendly than average because of the extensive array of features offered, but potentially worth the effort for that same reason. In “Mind Map Mode,” you can create an interactive tree of your ideas; weaving together PDF files, notes, images, links to highlighted text, and any other information collected and created during your research. This is just one of the many features offered by Docear and highlighted in the impressive introductory video found on their website. As a frequently updated reference manager which takes user satisfaction and suggestions seriously, Docear is worth taking a look at.


2. Mendeley

Platform: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Web, Android, iOS


Mendeley was first released in 2008 by a large team of investors and researchers and sold earlier this year to publishing giant Elsevier. It combines a user-friendly PDF and reference manager with an academic social network. This makes it ideal for sharing research online in both public and private groups, and discovering new research based on interests, research trends, and a related documents search. If you select a folder for Mendeley to “watch,” any PDF files downloaded to that folder will be automatically added to your library with metadata attached. The file manager feature makes it easy to rename multiple PDF files based on specified metadata criteria. Mendeley also offers an internal PDF viewer that can be used to highlight sections and notes from the PDF files in your library for later review. If you are looking for a comprehensive PDF manager and to connect with other researchers and discover new research, Mendeley is among the best.


3. Qiqqa

Platform: Windows


Qiqqa was developed by a Cambridge UK start-up and offers comprehensive tools to manage and understand references in your collection. After you add PDF files and reference metadata through the internal web browser, the documents are scanned with OCR technology and information on common themes, keyword clouds, cross-references and citation statistics can be explored through its ‘Expedition’ feature. Qiqqa also offers a “Brainstorm” feature that can be used to organize any information and ideas you have through an interactive visual interface. The feature rich environment takes some getting used to, but if you are new to an area of research, Qiqqa offers you the tools to familiarize yourself with the existing literature whatever your interests.


4. Refworks

Platform: Web


Refworks is produced under the publisher ProQuest as a strictly web-based reference tool compatible with major browsers and operating systems. Refworks has a large market share among Canadian universities and is a straightforward tool for collecting and saving references during online searches. If you are looking for more than the bare minimum, and go on extended literature searches to add multiple PDF files and references in a single session, look somewhere else.


5. Zotero

Support: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Web, Android and iOS (third party apps)


Zotero is an open source reference manager developed by a team of librarians out of George Mason University. Originally launched as a Firefox browser extension, it has since become available for Chrome and Safari browsers, and also as a standalone application. The browser integration makes adding multiple references from online journals and other less conventional sources like Youtube videos equally seamless. If you download a lot of PDF files during your literature searches, Zotero can automatically add metadata information to your files and rename them based on the metadata criteria you choose.  If you are looking for a reference manager that provides a straightforward interface you can use to organize your references and attach any additional information such as personal notes or snapshots of web pages to your references, Zotero is tough to beat.

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