Thing 15: Reference management


Building a reference list is no longer a cumbersome chore. Reference management systems enable you to save, store, and manage your bibliographies quickly and easily.

In this Thing we explore a few of the tools available online (or through the university library!) to make the attribution process as effortless as possible.

What do they do?

Online reference management tools allow you to:

  • import references from different sources (e.g. websites, library catalogues, bibliographic databases)

  • manage and/or edit the references once they’re in the system, and manually add any references that you cannot find online

  • export references into a document, either as a single bibliography / reference list, or individually (often called “cite while you write”) which generates a list of references

  • format the reference list / bibliography according the referencing style of your choice, and re-format if necessary

EndNote and RefWorks

The University of Auckland’s library website has extensive information about these two tools, which we won’t duplicate here:

Their comparison table effectively highlights the features of both. Some important points:

  • You can exchange references between EndNote and RefWorks, so your choice of software does not lock you into that tool forever after.

  • RefWorks is cloud-based (more about that in Thing 17) so it can be accessed from anywhere (and can be recovered easily if you lose your computer). However, that comes with a storage limit.

  • RefWorks is available to alumni, so your access continues after you leave the university.


Both RefWorks and EndNote are commercial programmes. Zotero, in contrast, is free and open source.

(What’s open source? You can think of it as Creative Commons for software, although funnily enough the idea for Creative Commons came from the open source movement originally. Other prominent open source programmes include the Firefox web browser and the Linux operating system.)

Back to Zotero, it can create, store, and organise references into folders. You can attach PDFs and other files to references in your library and insert citations into Word or Google Docs. References can be tagged and sorted to allow advanced searching.

Versions of Zotero:

  • Zotero for Firefox is a browser extension enabling you to capture and organise references without leaving Firefox. A plugin is needed to insert citations into Microsoft Word documents.

  • Zotero Standalone is a separate program downloaded to your computer and can integrate with Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. Microsoft Word plugins are included.

Like many reference management systems, Zotero can export lists of articles (and PDFs) or books from many major databases and websites with just a few clicks. You can also set up a Zotero web account to sync your library from any location, or a Zotero group – either public (open to all) or private (invite only) – to share your references with others.



Tight browser integration.

Only works with Firefox, Chrome and Safari.

Free, open source, and actively developed.

Cannot automatically format citations in Author (Year) style.

Functionality can be extended with add-ons.


Mendeley is a free application comprising two components – Mendeley Web and Mendeley Desktop – that allow you to generate citations and bibliographies in Microsoft Word or Google Docs. You can add and organise PDFs in your library from your computer, as well as import PDFs from other reference management tools such as EndNote or Zotero. PDFs can be read and annotated using sticky notes and highlighting tools.

Mendeley’s strength lies in its networking and collaboration functionality. Researchers can collaborate securely online to share papers, notes, and annotations with peers and can network and discover papers, people, and public groups. Users can form groups that can be either public or private. Public groups are open for new members to join and share resources and communicate with each other.

As with most contemporary reference tools, Mendeley can sync your library via the web, iPhone, or iPad.



Free (2 GB storage).

PDF specific.

Extensive social networking features.

Strong science community presence, but not humanities.

Crowd-sourced research catalogue of over 100 million papers.

Syncing between desktop app and Mendeley web can be slow.

Easy to edit citations in Word.

Beware copyright issues when sharing copyrighted PDFs.

Can access Mendeley library across various platforms.

try-this-iconTry this

How do you organise your references and write your reference list? Write a blog post about your process for managing references, whether that’s via one of these tools, another tool, or your own unique method.

explore-further-iconExplore further

A video on choosing a reference manager that suits you:

More information on using Zotero
Zotero Support

More information on using Mendeley
Mendeley Support

If you don’t want to learn more about the intricacies of referencing style, the University of Auckland’s Quick©ite is a good place to begin

In addition, when I was working at Massey University I created a similar page for APA style – I cannot resist sharing it here as well!
APA Interactive

You may have heard that the university is implementing a new course reading list system called Talis. While it does have the ability to export citations (for example to RefWorks) we don’t recommend using it as your main bibliographic / referencing management tool – that’s not its primary purpose.


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