23 Things for Research – Thing 19: Explore reference management tools online

Reference management software would have been really useful at library school if only I understood how they worked. You can enter references manually, you can search from within the reference management software, and you can ‘push’ references from, for example, the library catalogue to your reference management profile. This all sounds great but the difficult thing is personalising it. There are lots of referencing systems out there. My university used Harvard but adapted it for their use, so it was not simply a case of clicking the Harvard option and, voila, your bibliography would be exactly what the university wanted. I ashamedly admit that I created my bibliography and in-text citations manually. I saw this as less time-consuming than spending time getting the settings correct on the reference management software.

Even if I had taken the time to perfect the settings according to my university’s adaptation of Harvard, I would only had to have changed it because they had a major overhaul of their Harvard reference system part way through my degree.

Now that I am a few years older and wiser, I can see the benefits of reference management software more clearly. I have a profile on Refworks, which I used reasonably extensively when I was doing a project on the library’s theses some time ago. Whilst I was doing my library school degree, I attended a session by a member of staff who helped create created Colwiz. He did an excellent job of selling it to me but my relationship with Colwiz did not last long.

I was impressed by the collaboration aspect of Colwiz, that you could share your references with groups – an excellent idea for group assessments. I also liked that you could edit an article you were reading by highlighting important passages and making notes in the margin. This is where Colwiz fell down. After spending at least an hour reading an article for one of my assessments and conscientiously clicking ‘save’ every few minutes, when I returned to said article, it had lost all of my notes and highlighting. I decided at that point that paper was a much more reliable friend. I emailed Colwiz and they apologised, although they were unable to offer a solution or reason. I do hope that the service is much more reliable now.

In terms of my future use, I might need to use a reference management software tool as I work through my CILIP Chartership. I’ve only just begun this process (having waited months for the new guidelines to be released) but fully expect to cite articles, news stories, blog posts, etc. I might also end up teaching reference management software to library users in the future, although this is not for definite yet.


Having used Refworks, I did not set up new profiles to discover what Zotero and Mendeley, although my friend who is studying for a PhD informs me Mendeley is the best. With Refworks I have imported references, put them into folders, chosen a reference management style (Harvard) and amended it for local use, and exported a bibliography. I have also used their Write ‘n’ Cite extension in Word, which allows you to link to your Refworks profile, choose the relevant reference for your in-text citation, and enters it into your Word document. Very useful.

I was originally afraid of reference management software and am concerned that others will be too. As long as people are taught correctly how to use reference management software, or are brave enough to work through the instructions and video tutorials, they will benefit greatly from something that will make their life easier.

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