Working with Reference Managers

While research is underpinned by how much time one spends scouring source databases, both online and offline, it may be not enough to collect those references if you can’t manage them successfully. This post is going to introduce the subject matter of referencing.

In this post, I will be talking of the nightmare of every student and researcher: namely organisation of references. Each of us has his or her own way of:

  • Finding sources that may be relevant to his or her subject matter;
  • Distilling relevant material from hundreds of texts we handle;
  • Setting up a database of authorities for use later on.

If you find yourself being stressed by this, it may be time to consider using a reference manager to organise your authorities while you focus on reading and writing that great assignment or paper before its deadline.

What is a Reference Manager?

A reference manager is a program that you use to organise your authorities. And by authorities, this simply means sources you use to prepare for your assignment.

A Good reference manager has to help you distinguish between primary and secondary sources, and to

  • Navigate each source;
  • Add new ones;
  • Delete; and
  • Update them.

Almost all reference managers today can help you format your reference to an appropriate citation style such as APA, or Harvard.

Types of Sources

A source simply is the type of a document from which you get your information. Sources are important in helping you avoid plagiarism, which is perhaps one of the serious offences in the academia.

Below are some of the sources you will come across when working as a researcher, that your reference manager can help you with:

These are monographs or texts that could have been written by either one or more authors.
Book Section
A book chapter in a book. Book sections are common in books with many contributors on a topic.
A paper presented in a conference and collected in a resultant book.
Journal Article
Popular for breaking new grounds in research, these are often found in technical journals.
A product of an organisation that presents important findings.
Could be a Master’s or Doctoral thesis. Though it is an unpublished work, a thesis is important as it uncovers new ground in a field.

Example of reference managers

There are many reference managers today. However, I will only talk of those which I once worked with and still continue to use as of today.

We have:

  1. Mendeley.
  2. Zotero.
  3. JabRef.
  4. BibDesk.1

Except for the last two, Mendeley and Zotero function in the same way: they both come with a desktop client, an online community and browser plugins.

JabRef and BibDesk are standalone programs. However, they can interface with other reference managers to exchange data.

Advantages of Reference Managers

The major advantage of reference managers has to do not only with how you add entries to a database, categorise those entries, but also with syncing.

Today’s reference managers such as Zotero and Mendeley are cloud-based:

  • You create an account online;
  • You get a desktop client for managing your sources offline;
  • You get a browser add-on for capturing citations while researching; and
  • All your references are synced across devices.

Thus, you do not need to worry about system crashes or loss of PC: once you get any new device, you log in and get your references on a new device.

This means that reference managers work like backup services such as Dropbox and Google Drive, where data is in the cloud.

These cloud services have got active forums where you get connected to people who share similar interests with you. This way, you can get recommendations and related references for a research paper you will be working on.

Setbacks of Reference Managers

The main setback has to do with setting up the desktop clients. Some of these clients are not fully accessible, especially on Windows (as of today in August 2020).

This, however, is offset by the fact that you can choose to manage your references online and download them when you need to work on a paper. As how this can be done, we will get into detail in the post on working with your sources in Microsoft Word.


A reference manager is a necessary tool if you have to stay on top of your game in research: you focus on researching and writing, and leaving the dirty work of organising such references to a reference manager.

In the next post, I will talk of how to use Zotero as a reference manager. Until then, stay safe and thanks for reading this post!

  1. Only found on Mac OS X. ↩︎

Ishe Chinyoka
Ishe Chinyoka
Access Technology Instructor

My research interests include operating systems, access technology, programming, and science fiction.