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Create Bibliographies

How to use citation managers to collect, organize, cite, and share your references

What Is a Citation Manager?

Citation managers (also called reference managers) are tools you can use to do the following:

  • Save your references to books, articles, movies, and other sources information
  • Organize those references
  • Format bibliographies/works cited lists in multiple citation styles
  • Insert in-text citations into the body of a document
  • Share references with others

If you're looking for help with citing and citations styles, you might find the Citing Your Sources guide helpful.

Choosing a Citation Manager

There are a number of options available to the BU community for free or via our subscriptions to databases.  Here are some key points to consider when choosing what will work best for you:

You should choose RefWorks if...

  • You want to directly export many references from scholarly databases
  • You would like to easily insert in-text citations and bibliographies into MS Word or Google Docs
  • You prefer a web-based manager (i.e. the data lives on a server)

You should choose Zotero if...

  • You want to easily "grab" information from a document, web page, or search results list
  • You want to use a citation manager that works in conjunction with Firefox, Chrome, or Safari
  • You prefer an app-based manager (i.e. the data lives on your hard drive, but you can sync it to a Zotero server)

You should choose Mendeley if...

  • You want to organize and upload documents already on your hard drive
  • You want to connect with peers and showcase your publications and scholarly impact
  • You prefer an app-based manager (i.e. the data lives on your hard drive, but you can sync it to a Mendeley server)

You should choose EndNote Basic* if...

  • You are already comfortable working with EndNote's desktop app
  • You want to share references with other EndNote users
  • You prefer a web-based manager (i.e. the data lives on a server, but you can sync it to the EndNote library on your hard drive)

If you want more information, the University of Toronto has created an extensive comparison table with even more options.

*The BU Libraries do not provide licenses for the full version of EndNote.  If you are interested in purchasing it, please see this page from BU Information Services and Technology.

Using Citation Managers for Collaboration and Teaching

Citation managers are ideal platforms for sharing references among members of a research group, students working on a group assignment, or colleagues that have formed a reading circle.  You can find instructions for sharing with RefWorks, Zotero, and Mendeley in this guide.

Benefits of Citation Managers for Collaboration...

  • You can decide which editing powers to grant to other group members
  • References can be annotated and files can be attached, allowing for a stable online workspace
  • Users can participate regardless of institutional affiliation
  • Users can link to items in their own institution's online collection from a bibliography
  • References can be easily inserted into writing projects using word processor plug-ins for Word and Google Docs
  • Bibliographies can be made public via a unique URL

...and a Few Limitations

  • All group members must be using the same citation manager
  • When using Mendeley and/or Zotero, your online storage space is limited unless you pay for more space, which may limit the number of documents you can attach to references
  • If using a citation manager in conjunction with Word, the plug-in must be installed locally; it does not work with Office 365 (though it does work with Google Docs)
  • Take caution when attaching documents to a public bibliography; you may be violating copyright law if you distribute copyrighted materials in this way

Citation Managers for Teaching and Learning

With the ability to host documents, facilitate collaboration, and standardize citing, citation managers are useful for instruction.  Below are some success stories from higher education instructors who have incorporated citation managers into their curricula.

Andrea Davis, "From Learning to Write to Learning to Cite: Using Zotero in the Classroom" from Perspectives on History (Oct, 2018).

Davis used Zotero as a learning management system for her history course, hosting readings on Zotero. Her students learned how to use the system for their own research and engaged in peer review during the research process.

Chad Iwertz, "Teaching with Zotero: Citation Management for Feedback and Peer Review" from the Oregon State University Teaching with Writing newsletter (Fall 2013).

In his freshman composition course, Iwertz uses Zotero's Note feature to get students to provide feedback on sources they've collected in a shared group library.  Iwertz was able to monitor the process and add feedback of his own to students' work.

Thomas Kim, "Building Student Proficiency with Scientific Literature Using the Zotero Reference Manager Platform" from Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education volume 39, issue 6, p. 412-415 (2011).

Kim used Zotero in a chemical literature seminar to introduce students to scholarly research and encourage them to attribute sources properly.  The bibliography-building functionality helped students build manageable reading lists in an information-rich field.

Tehmina Khwaja and Pamela L. Eddy, "Using Mendeley to Support Collaborative Learning in the Classroom" from Journal of Educational Technology, volume 12, number 2, p. 19-28 (2015).

Khwaja and Eddy used Mendeley as a platform for collaboration and annotation in graduate teacher education courses, facilitating students' research efforts as they collected and evaluated references for a policy-writing assignment.

Amanda Makula and Anne Earel, "Enhancing Pedagogy Through Technology: Using Beyond Question and RefWorks to Engage Students in Information Literacy Across the Curriculum", poster presented at the Association of College & Research Libraries’ 2009 Conference.

Makula and Earel utilized the collaborative capabilities of RefWorks for their information literacy course, allowing students to easily gather their own references and assist in their classmates' research.

Best Practices

While bibliographic managers make citing, storing, and organizing references easy, they are not foolproof.  Keep the following things in mind when using them:

  • Choose Wisely: If you need a manager that works offline, you should pick a software-based tool like Zotero rather than a web-based tool like RefWorks.  If you often do group research, it's wise for all group members to use the same bibliographic manager.
  • Check Your References: The various libraries and databases you use index information differently, with varying degrees of accuracy.  Necessary information might be missing or incorrect (e.g. book chapters categorized as journal articles).  Check the information in each reference in your bibliographic manager before you start citing them in your work.
  • Research First, Then Write: Many bibliographic managers include a component that works with word processing software.  Though you can usually alter your bibliography by inserting or removing a citation, it's easier to collect all your references before you start writing.
  • Use One Document Per Project: If you're working on a long piece of writing, like a book or dissertation, it may be tempting to save your chapters as several files.  Unless you're using end notes that are numbered anew with each chapter, resist this temptation.  Combining citations from different files can be tricky when you're using a citation feature from your bibliographic manager.
  • Know the Rules: It helps to know the basic citation format of the style you're using, whether that's APA style, MLA style, or something else altogether.  This will help you to spot irregularities in your citations.  Use the Cite Your Sources guide to find information about citation styles.


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