What Reference Software Should I Use?

The answer is simple: the one that works best for you.

This blog arose from speaking to some PhD students and ECRs who, when asked why they used they used X piece of software, answered that it was because it’s the one their supervisor or spouse used, or that it was the one which was promoted by the Department. There is nothing wrong with this, but it may not be their best choice.

The question of what reference software to use is one that, in all honesty, I spent more time and intellectual horsepower on during the first few months of my PhD than I spent on actual research. However, at the time, I had very little experience in doing PhD level research or writing, so I made sub-optimal choices. Having now settled on a system (after having a bit more researching/writing experience), I’ve outlined some of the points which I think are important to evaluate when it comes choosing software.

N.B. – most of this comes down to personal choice. There are no absolutes as the optimal choice will be determined by your writing and research style, and your comfort with using software. This post won’t tell you what software you should use, but it may help you ensure what you are using is the best choice for you.

In the main, your reference software should:

  • Make it easy to store articles that you have read
  • Make it easy to keep a record of books that you have read
  • Produce citations in the styles which are relevant to you

However, there are a few other things that are important to think about.

It must be simple to use

This is crucial. If something is hard to do, it gets done less often than it should. If you find that your research or writing style doesn’t suit the referencing software, you will struggle and start taking short-cuts or leave the updating of the references until ‘later’. You need to chose software which complements how you work, and not change your style to suit your software.

It must be capable of producing references in the styles which are relevant to you

This is fundamental. The software must be capable of producing output which is required by the journals that you are looking to submit to. There is no point in using LATEX (which is ubiquitous in the Science, Technology and Economics departments) if legal journals require submissions in Word.

If you haven’t yet started writing up, make sure that the software you use will produce the styles that your Department and your future Journal Editors and Publishers will require. The sooner you make the change, the easier the process is.

It must be inter-operable

The software you use should be inter-operable with all the main Operating Systems and all of the main word processors. Your reference software and research library should follow you as your progress your career, and different Departments will have different rules. Over time, you may migrate between Windows, Mac and even Linux! Your reference software needs to be able to follow you on this journey.

Choosing a reference management system which locks you into a particular eco-system may result in problems and hurried migrations in times to come. This problem can be exacerbated by the fact that reference management systems which aren’t that inter-operable are more likely to limit your ability to export your research library in the future.

At some stage, despite all of your best efforts, you may need to change your reference software. Accordingly, before you’ve built up years of references in your library, make sure that you can get all of this data out in a common format. If you are relying on your reference manager to store files for you, you may find that it is not possible to export or move these files to another system, which is not a good place to be.

You should be slow to chose a reference system which has been designed to promote lock-in, and make sure that you are keeping ownership of your research library index and files.

It must sync with the cloud, but work locally

You should be able to sync your library data with the cloud, in a secure manner and ideally not have to pay for this. However, your reference software and library should still work when you are off-line.

If you are limited to online only or manual syncing, you are working around your reference software rather it working for you.

It should source metadata automatically

This is claimed by pretty much all major reference software vendors, but I’ve had very different results with different programs. Make sure that the software you chose is able to source metadata for the types of journals that you will be using.

There is little point in using software which can’t lookup major law publications but is great on biology if most of what you read comes from law.

It must be simple to use

With all of the above in mind – it really must be simple to use. You shouldn’t be thinking too much about your reference software after you’ve started using it. It should just work, and support your research and writing style. If what you are using does that, you’ve probably made the best choice!

My Setup

I carry out my research on a laptop running QubesOS but in two years I’ve migrated from Windows -> Mac -> Windows -> Qubes.

I use Zotero, as it works on all platforms. It has a plugin for OpenOffice and it handles all of the major citation styles. It is also fast and doesn’t (unlike my experience with EndNote) slow down the machine when in use.

When researching, I download all articles before reading them, and these are then saved in a Dropbox folder. Zotero can see them and when I add a file to the library, it is normally able to source the metadata for me.

Since I set up the folder where my library lives, I control the PDFs and I control the security around them. Zotero will export the library index into commonly used formats, so migrating the index and the library PDFs is simple.

Finally (and this is personal preference rather than prescriptive), I find Zotero very easy to use. I’m not fighting with it when I’m writing and I don’t go down procrastination induced rabbit holes such as trying to reconfigure it or try to get it to stop doing ‘that thing’.

With other tools, I found myself getting frustrated that adding/editing a reference slowed down the computer or required me to open a new window or required adjustment. Zotero solved those issues for me.