Academic Writing

Top 8 Best Reference Manager Software in 2022

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Imagine adding citations to a paper with a single click—that's the power of a good reference manager. And it's every student and researcher's dream reference tool.

Also called citation managers, reference managers help you store and organize references as you find them online, meaning that you never have to worry about misplacing a source.

Reference managers will automatically format your references into your preferred style (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) and plug them directly into your paper with a single click. Talk about saving time!

When comparing EndNote vs. Zotero or Zotero vs. Mendeley, how do you choose the citation manager that will work best for your purposes? 

Let's look at the best bibliography software available so you can choose the right one for you.

Understanding the Importance of a Reference Manager

The magic of a reference manager lies in its ability to speed up your work as a researcher or student. The quicker you can save a reference, organize it, and cite it in your paper, the better.

A good reference manager gives you the flexibility to access references from any device and collaborate with others. It does the heavy lifting of storing and organizing all of your information so your work's integrity stays intact.

Before we dive into the features of the best citation managers, such as EndNote, Mendeley, and Zotero, let's talk about some of the key benefits of using them.

Better Organize Your Citations

If you can picture yourself surrounded by half-open books and sheets of loose-leaf paper late at night, you know how messy writing a research paper can be.

You might have half-written sentences on Post-its or even several Word docs open with scattered links. This is the fastest way to lose an important source.

With a reference manager, you stay organized using a research database. You can create folders for specific types of references, such as journals, videos, or articles, or divide sources by author or subject, adding tags to each source for sorting. 

You can even set different statuses, such as "to read" or "currently reading," to keep your research process organized.

A reference manager might be your new best friend if you're a student or researcher who collects data on a regular basis!

Never Lose Track of Your Sources

One of the quickest ways to diminish the authority of your work is to cite the wrong reference. Worse, you might not cite your reference at all, which would drastically diminish your authority in a research paper. Charges of plagiarism can also occur if you forget to cite a source, which is not great for students or career academics!

A reference manager gives you a one-stop shop for all your sources, lowering the chance of misusing a citation or forgetting to add one.

Most even have Microsoft Word integrations that let you auto-format citations and bibliographies so you never have to wonder if your MLA citations are correct!

To retain authority in your work, make use of a good reference manager. There are so many good ones out there; you're bound to find the right one for you.

Make Better Use of Your Time

When you're writing a research paper, time is of the essence, and this is where reference managers and citation programs come in handy. They offer a centralized hub for the following important tasks:

  • Collaborating with co-authors
  • Reading and annotating PDFs
  • Searching online databases
  • Formatting citations and bibliographies

Without a good reference manager, you might find yourself at the mercy of poorly handwritten notes, missed annotations from collaborators, or incorrect citations—all of which can diminish your authority and render your research faulty.

By keeping better track of your references with a reference manager, you'll save time and further your research with confidence.

Top 8 Reference Manager Software Applications

To the average person, choosing a reference manager might not seem like a difficult decision. For those involved in graduate or research work, it's been said to be the equivalent of choosing a spouse—you have to spend some time with a few before deciding on the right one for you.

Here are some things to keep in mind when deciding on the best citation manager for you.

Reference Managers Software

With these questions in mind, let's take a look at the top-rated reference managers.

Correct, Complete, Consistent Citations


1. Zotero


Zotero is a free, open-source reference manager software that can be downloaded to your computer and used on the web, making it easy to sync information across devices.

Saving and organizing references online is easy with its Connector browser extension, which works with all major browsers. Available for Mac, Windows, and Linux machines, Zotero has a clean and minimal interface, making it easy to catalog important information to incorporate into your projects.

Zotero Review & Key Features


Acting as a digital research assistant for your work, Zotero offers 300 MB of free file storage, with the option to purchase more if needed.

References can easily be added with its Connector browser extension or with an identifier, and you can keep your sources organized with collections and subcollections, separating work by author or research type.

Zotero tagging allows easy filtering. Its annotation feature is helpful as well, letting you add and save notes to references as you read.

A Microsoft Word plug-in that auto-formats in-text citations and bibliographies in any style comes standard with Zotero. Another perk is that all of your citations can be linked to Zotero's library, making it easy to update them all at once.

Lastly, you can collaborate with as many co-authors as you need to at no cost. If collaboration is important to you, Zotero might be a good citation manager to try vs. Mendeley, which we'll cover next.

2. Mendeley


Like Zotero, Mendeley is a downloadable tool that lets you easily add references to a library. You can save sources directly from all major browsers or import them from your desktop.

Mendeley can be accessed across all your devices with free and paid options. It excels in gathering data from PDFs by automatically extracting metadata and creating library entries and even comes with an excellent built-in PDF viewer.

Mendeley Review & Key Features


Mendeley has free and paid options but offers more cloud storage upfront for free than other reference managers, including RefWorks or EndNote (2 GB), which equates to about 700–800 articles. If you need more storage, 5 GB costs $55/year and unlimited is $165/year.

Currently, Mendeley is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux machines. Its web importer works with all major browsers, allowing you to save references to your personal library from anywhere online.

It automatically categorizes your sources into "Recently Added" and "Recently Read" for easy organization, with the ability to "star" certain references to save for later.

With its Microsoft Word plug-in, you can also cite sources without having the Mendeley tool open on your desktop or even installed.

To help you keep all of your notes in one place, Mendeley lets you highlight and annotate any PDFs within the platform, so you never lose track of your ideas.

3. EndNote


A Mendeley alternative, EndNote has been around a lot longer than Mendeley. Endnote, vs. Mendeley, has the unique ability to search databases, such as PubMed, from within the tool. EndNote also makes it easy to trade references with collaborators and has been said to be extremely helpful for those in STEM disciplines.

Like other citation managers, it has a standalone desktop version and an online version that can be used across multiple devices. While the web version of EndNote can be used for free (EndNote Basic), you'll find more robust features in its paid software.

EndNote Review & Key Features


In its paid version (a one-time purchase of $99–$249), EndNote offers unlimited storage space, which makes it a better tool for managing large reference collections. It is available for both macOS and Windows.

Additionally, EndNote's online search function makes it easy to conduct research right inside EndNote. You can search databases such as LISTA, PubMed, and Web of Science from inside the platform and import references even faster than in a browser.

Collaboration is easier, too, especially with the latest version (EndNote 20), which includes the capability to share references with up to 200 EndNote desktop users.

EndNote also helps you stay organized by giving you the power to create rules to automatically organize references and saves you time by allowing you to insert citations into your text based on your preferred style with their Cite While You Write integration.

4. Flowcite


Flowcite is an all-in-one platform for students and professionals that not only allows you to collect and categorize sources but also write, format, and spell-check your paper.

Unlike other citation manager software, it aims to improve productivity and drive research further by giving you all the features and tools you need in one place.

Like other reference managers, it has both free and paid options, browser extensions, real-time synchronization across devices, and the ability to bulk import sources from your desktop.

Flowcite Review & Key Features


Flowcite includes robust features that give you everything you need to write your academic paper from start to finish, including the following:

  • Access to 250 million+ open-access free journal articles from within the platform
  • Integration with your university library for source searching
  • A collaborative PDF viewer where you and your colleagues can annotate documents together
  • An online bookstore where you can purchase books or rent e-books for research
  • A similarity detection and proofreading service to check your work before publication

Flowcite's free option gives you up to 3 GB of storage and the ability to collaborate with up to three people. Its paid option is only $9/month and gives you up to 30 GB of storage, the ability to collaborate with 10 people, and unlimited projects, documents, and searches.

5. Citationsy


Citationsy helps over 300,000 students and researchers collaborate, import existing references, create in-text citations with a click, annotate references, and cite sources in over 10,000 citation styles.

Unlike other bibliography software, Citationsy allows you to create references directly from your phone with its iOS and Android apps. Its tool offers a free 3-day trial with payment tiers for students and non-students after the trial ends ($4.99/month for students, $9.99/month for non-students).

Citationsy Review & Key Features


With Citationsy, you can easily import and export references in BibTex/LaTeX format, as well as save them online with Citationsy's Chrome, Firefox, Edge, or Safari browser extensions.

All citation data on Citationsy are also saved in the cloud, so you never have to worry about data loss. It's easy to collaborate with co-authors, share bibliographies with a single link, and add notes to your references.

Citationsy also separates itself from other reference managers with its mobile app, which has a built-in book scanner function, allowing you to cite books when you're on the go.

6. RefWorks


RefWorks is a professional bibliography software that helps you manage references while researching and collaborating on academic writing. It allows you to organize, store, and share your sources, as well as create in-text citations and bibliographies in both Microsoft Word and Google Docs. You can also import sources directly into RefWorks from Google Scholar.

RefWorks only has a paid option, and to gain access, your institution must have a subscription with them. There is a legacy version of RefWorks that is web-based, although it's not as intuitive or efficient as the more recent version.

RefWorks Review & Key Features


In the latest version of RefWorks, you can save an unlimited number of references and other research materials. You can quickly import sources from online databases, catalogs, and other reference tools.

Like other reference managers, you have the ability to tag your sources for better organization inside RefWorks. It also comes with a built-in reader, and you can annotate full-text documents and add comments collaboratively.

With RefWorks, you also have the ability to sync your data to DropBox, a cloud storage platform that lets you retain a local copy of documents without being connected to the internet. Pretty handy!

7. Paperpile


Paperpile gives you an easy way to store more than just PDFs for your research—you can store CSV or Excel files or even image files from your desktop and automatically turn them into a well-structured library.

You can easily create shared folders and links to share with others, including non-Paperpile users. Paperpile coordinates easily with Google Apps, allowing you to sync all your information to a Google Drive account and access it from anywhere.

Paperpile has a free 30-day trial and two paid options: one for academics at $2.99/month and one for businesses at $9.99/month.

Paperpile Review & Key Features


With Paperpile, no installation is necessary. Paperpile is a great bibliographic reference tool that gives you everything you need to manage and organize your research.

It would be most beneficial for someone who already uses Google Apps and has a Google account, as most of the features sync with Google. It does have a Microsoft Word plug-in (currently in beta) if Word is your preference for inserting citations. 

Paperpile also offers thousands of journal-specific styles to allow you to format your work the way you want. With Paperpile, you can easily import data from popular databases such as Google Scholar and PubMed with their browser extensions and search those databases within Paperpile.

Because Paperpile utilizes Google Drive for storage, there are no storage limitations for your sources, and you can easily collaborate and share references with others inside Google Docs.

8. BibDesk


BibDesk is a LaTeX-compatible bibliography manager for Mac users that provides BibTex file management. It's a free, open-source project that allows you to compile web or file references, edit your reference database easily, and file PDFs automatically.

You can import references in multiple formats, such as PubMed, Refer, or Marc, and search online databases from within BibDesk. You can keep your references organized with smart groups and keywords while formatting in-text citations and bibliographies for word processors, such as Pages, Microsoft Word, and TextEdit.

BibDesk Review & Key Features


BibDesk was designed solely for Mac users and easily integrates with LaTeX. You can use it to manage and edit your citations, export them as .bib files, and use them in LaTex documents.

For those familiar with LaTeX, you can generate bibliographies and in-text citations in your document in the format of your preferred style. Keep in mind that people unfamiliar with LaTeX might find this reference manager a bit harder to use.

In BibDesk, you can quickly create references manually or by grabbing a BibTex file from an online database, such as Google Scholar, and pasting it directly into BibDesk. You'll need OS X version 10.9 or higher to download BibDesk.

The Bottom Line

There are a multitude of reference managers to choose from, each with its own unique strengths. You'll probably need to experiment with a couple of them before you find the right fit for you. For example, when comparing Paperpile vs. Mendeley or Mendeley vs. Refworks, there are a few things to keep in mind.

If you have a high volume of references to store, you may want to consider choosing a reference manager that allows for extra storage, such as Paperpile, Mendeley, or EndNote. Or, if you are looking for a simple web-based application that's more lightweight, you may not want a reference manager that you have to download. In that case, Paperpile or Flowcite might work for you.

On the other hand, if you do more collaborative work, a reference manager that allows several collaborators to trade references within the platform might be best, such as Zotero or EndNote.

Correct, Complete, Consistent Citations


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