Reference Manager Software: What Is It and What Can It Do?

This article defines the scope of types of reference manager software and provides details on how to use it effectively.

Updated on August 20, 2013

word cloud with the word software in bold type

If you have ever found yourself struggling to format a bibliography, straining to insert an umlaut in the name of a foreign author, or reformatting each citation in your paper because you have to resubmit to a second journal, you will likely benefit from using a reference manager (RM). Researchers have to handle large amounts of data that are pulled from previous publications, and the conversation involved in progressing scientific discovery always involves a multitude of voices. Keeping track of these voices can be toilsome, and writing literature reviews often demands a large amount of time during the manuscript drafting phase of a research project. RMs can help simplify manuscript writing so that researchers can focus on other aspects of the research process.


RMs are software packages designed for scholars and authors to build local libraries that they can then use to organize, sort, and reference when writing. RMs can typically be “plugged in” directly to the researcher's word processing software or web browsers. By inserting code associated with a given reference, such RMs will automatically create bibliographies formatted to a journal or style manual's specific requirements.

Citations can be inserted manually (as in the “Citations & Bibliography” management software that comes standard with any Microsoft Word© package), or they can be culled from any of the vast online resources based on manual searches given any number of search criteria. Depending on the sophistication of the software's articulation with various search engines, authors may use proprietary search services to find sources through a local library affiliation (e.g., Web of Science or WorldCat), free online search tools (e.g., Google Scholar, arXiv, IEEE Xplore, or PubMed), or social collaboration networks for researchers (e.g., Mendeley Web, or Zotero).

With the ever-increasing global research network, many researchers find it beneficial to be a member of a discipline-specific professional research network, but most RMs do not require a membership to be able to use their desktop software. Instead, the most common use for an RM is for maintaining a local digital library so that researchers can easily insert citations and automatically create a bibliography for a paper.


As previously mentioned, there are a number of advantages for using an RM, which include the following:

Inserting references. As previously mentioned, RMs typically insert coded citation information that refers back to the author's locally saved library. Depending on the specifications of a journal's guidelines, these references may require the use of brackets [1], parentheses (1), superscripted text1, bracketed or parenthesized superscripted text[1],(2), or commas to separate the author's name and date of publication (“Hantla 2013” vs. “Hantla, 2013”). All of these formatting differences can be automatically adjusted by setting up specifications in the RM.

Creating bibliographies. Depending on how you are accustomed to writing for your field, you may reserve inserting citations until after you have finished drafting the paper and keep a large bibliography in a separate file. Doing this often requires the use of notes and placeholders in the text that run the risk of being submitting with the article to the journal editor, which can make your work appear careless. Using an RM to manage the order in which citations appear in your bibliography can greatly reduce the amount of time you spend drafting an article, leaving more time for data collection and experimentation.

Changing the reference system for resubmission. As is often the case, when an author is rejected from one journal, he/she must begin the manuscript preparation process for a new journal. Sometimes, this requires a reorganization of the paper, but most of the time, the authors are required to reformat the paper's references and bibliography according to a new set of standards (typically found under the “Guidelines for Authors” section of the journal's website). These specifications come in one of at least three different styles:

  • Numbered sequential: numbered according to the order in which a citation falls in the manuscript
  • Numbered alphabetical: numbered according to the reference's order in an alphabetized bibliography
  • Author/date: references listed with the author's name and date of publication in the text and then listed alphabetically in the bibliography

Changing from one of these systems to another can be time-consuming and confusing, especially if you have to add a new reference to a “numbered alphabetical” bibliography. Additionally, the risk of incorrectly formatting a citation or bibliography could mean a poor review or desk rejection from a journal. RMs, however, will reduce a researcher's time significantly by automatically making the necessary changes in bibliography order, numbering vs. author/date format, and bibliography syntax (i.e., the punctuation and order in which items in a bibliographic entry are listed).

Note: You may still be need to go through the paper to change the location of the reference (e.g., before/after a punctuation mark or with/without a space between the word and number).

Culling resources automatically from online databases. Perhaps one of the most valuable uses for RMs is their ability to pull citations automatically from internet search engines and populate a local reference library. Large search engines, such as Google Scholar, even have gadgets that can be added to results of the peer-reviewed literature to quickly and accurately download references directly into your local library. These searches can be made using a DOI, ISBN, ISSN, PMID, or other identifier, and a complete file will be downloaded to your computer to automatically populate individual fields that help create bibliographic citations.

Note: Some databases have either inaccurate or incomplete information recorded in their database files; some fields may even have extra spaces, which can create issues when generating a bibliography (see previous note). Although you should review these fields once you have downloaded the file, this review process requires less time than manually finding and generating a bibliographic entry.

In conclusion, consider using an RM in drafting future manuscripts. Although you may experience some technical issues when integrating the RM to your current research practices, the time you save using the RM while drafting will be well worth it.

AJE offers a formatting service if you'd like help in formatting your manuscript.

Finishing touchesAuthor ResourcesEditingFormattingReference Manager SoftwareReferencesCitationsBibliography
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