Thing 23: Reference Management

With most journal articles available in a digital format, using an online tool to manage referencing, and the sources you accumulate for your research interests and academic writing projects, can save a lot of time. But how exactly do these tools work, and how do you pick one? Kat Frame and Kathryn Lindsay build on the 2017 Thing post on reference management to get you started.

Getting started

Reference management applications have been around for many years, and allow you to collect, organise, cite, and share references. There are now plenty of products to choose from: Zotero, EndNote, and Mendeley are amongst the most popular ones. Maybe you have looked at them before, or maybe you are frustrated with the product you are currently using. Whatever the case, it is worth revisiting the options, as competition for users means that functionality is continually improving across the tools available. Even if you are already using a reference manager, it’s a straightforward process to transfer your references to a different program, so you’re not locked in. When selecting an application, you should evaluate if the tool aligns with your preferences and has features that will enhance your information management processes.

That Thing you do: integration into practice

The ideal time to adopt a new tool or develop new processes is before you embark on a new project, so you can streamline your workflows. Reference management tools allow you to store bibliographic information from your literature searches in databases and the Web into a single library, giving you easy access. You can organise your references into folders and multiple categories, then sort and search them for relevant papers. You can also attach PDFs or your own research notes to each reference. Another key feature of reference managers is their ability to insert in-text citations and automatically format bibliographies in different styles in word processors. If you use multiple devices – for example, a laptop and a tablet – you can sync your reference management library across them. You can also share references with others who are using the same reference management tool as you.

If you are concerned that it may be time consuming to get started because you already have a huge folder of PDFs, don’t worry. Zotero, EndNote, and Mendeley all allow you to upload a folder of PDFs, which is an easy way to build your library.

Choosing a tool

The University of Melbourne Library recommends and supports three highly regarded and popular reference management tools: Zotero, Mendeley, and EndNote. To find the tool that best meets your needs, have a look at the options for managing references guide. This includes discipline-specific recommendations, and also provides a handy comparison table of all the tools.


Zotero is a free, open-source reference manager which allows you to sync your library to the cloud and across multiple computers. It offers a simple interface and is easy to learn how to use. You can extend the functionality with community-developed plugins. Zotero is a good choice if you’re seeking a balance between functionality and the time required to develop your skills with the tool. Because of its open-source nature – which means you are not locked into an institutional licence – you will have no problems with maintaining access to Zotero if you leave the University.


• Zotero imports references from scholarly databases and has a connector which harvests information from webpages to create references for non-scholarly sources.
• Great for collaborating with peers and project team members who are outside the University of Melbourne community.
• Works with MS Word, Libre Office, and Google Docs.
• The Zotero community offers an extensive range of plugins which provide enhancements.
• Offers limited free storage space (300 MB), but you can buy more or use the Zotfile plugin to store your attachments on Google Drive or OneDrive.
• Support is available from the Zotero documentation pages, the Zotero user community, and the Library.


Mendeley is both a reference management tool and academic social network. It is owned by the academic publisher Elsevier. Mendeley has a simple layout and is easy to use. It has both desktop and web versions which offer different features.


• The University of Melbourne provides staff and students access to the institutional edition. This provides 100 GB personal storage, 100 GB shared storage and unlimited private groups of up to 100 collaborators.
• Allows you to connect to a network of peers and crowd-sourced papers.
• Has a built-in PDF annotator so you can keep notes with the PDFs in your library.
• Support is available from the Mendeley Support Center and the Library.


EndNote is a licensed product, owned by Clarivate Analytics. The University has subscribed to EndNote for many years, and it is widely used. EndNote has both desktop and online components, and you can use it to share references. You can use EndNote at a basic level, but expect to invest time in developing advanced skills. EndNote includes advanced information management features useful for researchers. The program is often used for systematic reviews, there are sophisticated file management options for adding PDFs to libraries, and it allows you to create custom reference types and referencing styles.


• University of Melbourne staff and students can download a version of EndNote from the library’s website that includes custom styles and settings.
• It doesn’t do ‘web scraping’ as well as Mendeley and Zotero.
• Support is available from Clarivate, the EndNote Community forum, and the Library.

Learn more

The Library has created a suite of support resources for reference management tools. Explore the library guides, watch our webinar recordings and video tutorials for each of the tools, or sign up for a workshop.

If you are already using a reference management tool and have a specific question not answered by the online support materials, you can get in touch with our librarians through the Library’s research consultation service.

About the authors

Kat Frame is a senior liaison librarian and leads programs and services for reference management tools and referencing styles at the University of Melbourne Library. She is also a member of the Education Library team and works with staff and students at the Graduate School of Education.

Kathryn Lindsay (BSc BE(Hons) Melb, GradDipInfoMgt RMIT) is a Senior Liaison Librarian and supervises the Science and Engineering Library team at the University of Melbourne, where she has worked for over 10 years. Kathryn previously worked as a Software Engineer and enjoys finding ways to use technology effectively to support research.


Image: Raymond Rasmusson on Unsplash

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