Jill Shuman
May 7, 2021 --

What to Consider When Choosing the Right Reference Management Software

reference manager blog feature image

Writers, editors, and researchers have a responsibility to provide accurate citations — and reference management software they use can play a vital role in supporting that responsibility.  These software platforms support researchers and writers in performing three basic research steps: searching, storing, and writing. 

A robust reference manager can help researchers find relevant literature, add chosen citations to a reference library, store papers and their bibliographic metadata in a cloud-based storage database for later retrieval, and directly insert citations and references in a chosen citation style when creating manuscripts and reference lists. You can use these platforms for one-time writing projects or as a secure repository for long-term projects.

But before you choose a platform for yourself, your organization, or your business, here’s what questions to ask:

What features does the reference management software have and will it meet our needs?

The most robust reference managers allow direct importing from bibliographic databases through direct access from the reference manager and/or bookmarklets that import content from the web browser. Alternatively, you can import references from other platforms with the help of import tools. The citations can then be used to generate citation lists and bibliographies.

A searchable library

The library needs to be searchable and have the ability to index and label references. Your  reference manager should also offer tools for organizing the references into folders and subfolders. You may also want to include full-text papers in PDF format that you can annotate and search, and the tool should then be able to extract metadata from the PDF to create a citation.

Members using the same reference database

You should be able to share references via the internet and organize each reference library into workgroups. This allows all members to use the same reference database. Next, you will want to sync your entire library including notes, lists, annotations, and highlights across all of your devices and operating systems.

Tools for exporting citations into Word and Google Docs

The most sophisticated reference managers offer cloud storage and tools for exporting citations and references into word processing software like Word and Google Docs simply by selecting relevant items from the citation library. Users should be able to select a citation style from a readily accessible tool that contains styles for a wide array of journals and scholarly publishers. 

Another key feature for a reference manager is the ability to save customized styles and formats for projects that fall outside the purview of standard journal publishers.

Does it offer a wide variety of citation styles?

Citation formats within the life sciences are typically based on one of several styles:

Vancouver/National Library of Medicine

References are consecutively numbered throughout the text. If the source is referred to again, the same number is used. The numbered citations are then used to create a citation list. In the broad sense, the Vancouver system refers to any author–number system regardless of the formatting details.


The author and year are cited in-text (Pears and Shields, 2019), and an alphabetical citation list is generated. This system is the basis for American Psychiatric Association (APA) style, which is used in many social science and nursing journals.

American Medical Association (AMA)

The AMA reference style is Vancouver style, and its formatting differs in some minor details from the NLM/PubMed style.

Although many science and medical journals have small, tweaked individual differences in their citation formats (i.e., brackets vs. parentheses, number of authors cited, etc.), most are based on Vancouver.

Test the software before making a commitment

The increase in scientific literature has led to the development of several reference managers. The best way to choose a reference manager is to uncover  the needs of your stakeholders to find out which features they need. 

If you’re considering a switch from an existing system, you’ll want to ensure that all of the current citations can be exported to the new platform. You’ll also want to consider what your future looks like: will your user base  grow? Will you need more collaborative features?

Don’t hesitate to ask each software platform for a trial subscription so that your teams can test each feature personally.

Learn more about how Papers can dramatically improve how you find, access, organize, read, share, and cite scholarly literature.

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