What is a Reference Manager?

Workplace station - Computer desk

Reference manager. Citation manager. Bibliography manager. Whatever name you call it, they are all names for management software used for in-document citation and organizing your personal PDF and reference library. Aimed at academics and authors, this management software helps to organize citations as well as reformat references for manuscript resubmission and revisions.

Quite simply (far too simply), reference managers help organize all those pdfs academics have on their computers so they can find them and cite them in-document when writing manuscripts. And, even after creating a bibliography a reference list format can be changed with a few clicks in manuscript.

But the reference managers of today have a much broader scope of use and innovative function.

One small step to take for a giant leap forward in academic life

Since the first reference managers of the 1980s, the software, as expected, has become extremely sophisticated and, what used to be a simple tool for organizing references, has become so much more than just keeping your citations in order. The software now does so many useful things encompassing not one aspect but the entire reading and writing work-life of the academic.

There are numerous reference managers available offering various features including;

  • Cloud storage and synchronicity: One doesn’t need to worry about all the original files on a single hard drive or even to back things up – it’s all up in the cloud and can be synced to all the devices you need.
  • Search and discover: Search your own libraries more easily and discover new and top related articles based on your library.
  • Manage your bibliography: Export personally curated bibliographies and reference lists in any style format you want and prioritize your reading.
  • Take notes: Built-in annotation tools help the reader mark important aspects and keep all the comments searchable in the context of the original text.
  • Metrics of articles: Seeing exactly who’s cited them and even blogged about them, broadening your network of specialists and viewing discussions beyond the PDF itself, again helping you to prioritize your reading.

More amazing features:

  • File-management
  • Automatic file renaming
  • Institution proxy integration
  • Search engine integration
  • Watch folders

…so much more

The above list of clever things reference managers can do is not the full impressive scope but you should get the picture. We live in a tech-driven world now which is a very exciting time for software innovation, the ideas for which are coming so thick and fast the reference managers are adding new and amazing tools to their repertoire all the time.

Keep it together

The core commodity of research is the PDF, yeah funding too, ok, but it’s how the majority of research is communicated so why not have the best software tools for this main commodity of academic life?

Searching library databases, reading the research, making notes, writing papers – these core elements to academic life can often be a fragmented and messy process; getting lost in a paper-trail of references and notes.

The reference manager is integral to the continued understanding of a field of study making it easier to find and report research, have continual access to huge libraries of research as well as one’s notes available instantly through personal mobile devices. Reference Managers have broken down the barriers of a once fragmented academic life by keeping the research altogether.

The last word in research 

While we may be biased in our preferred choice of Reference Manager, ReadCube Papers, we believe in the importance of reference managers as a primary tool in the life of the academic and just hope that every academic chooses one that suits their lifestyle.


Guest blog by Dr Jojo Scoble PhD, evolutionary microbiologist turned writer.

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Alex Hodgson