Reference Management Software

Since this is my very first post on this blog, I’ll start off with what I regard as the best bit of advice that can be given to a student of any discipline: Use some kind of reference management software. For my money, this is the number one, absolute-must, tippety-top thing that you can do that will make your life as a student easier, bump up your productivity, and help to increase your grades.

Once more just in case you missed it: Use some reference management software! If you’re an undergraduate student with essays to write and you’re not using it, you’re an idiot. If you’re a grad student with a long-form thesis to write and you’re not using it, then you’re insane.

Just what is reference management software? Say you’re writing an essay. First you do some research into the topic. These days that usually means you download a load of pdfs from the web (we’ll cover how best to use the web for research in another post) on the relevant topic, read some or all of them (perhaps taking notes at the same time on the most relevant bits), make an essay plan, write your essay (citing all the papers you mention), and finally spend ages manually typing out a reference list at the end with a reference for everything you cited in the text, in the correct format.

Typing out reference lists is a massive pain. Correctly typing out a reference in APA (American Psychological Association) format involves lots of fiddly punctuation and formatting:

Marlowe, P., Spade, S., & Chan, C. (2001). Detective work and the benefits of colour versus black and white. Journal of Pointless Research, 11, 123–127.

Furthermore, this is something that first year students always get wrong. Incorrect citations in the text, and an incorrectly formatted reference list is far and away the most common problem with student essays. Many students really struggle with learning the rules for this kind of thing; sometimes it’s just laziness, but often it’s because the rules seem arcane and complex to a beginner. They are important though, and teachers often get frustrated with student’s seeming refusal to follow what (to them) seem like simple procedures. A correctly formatted reference list is a blessed relief to a tired lecturer who is wading through a pile of papers, most of which make the same basic mistakes, over and over again. If you can get it right, your grades will improve, I guarantee it.

So, what if there was an easier way? What if you could just write your essay and all the citations and references could be generated magically and correctly at the end without you having to do anything except push a button? What if all your references and pdf files could be organised, with sensible filenames so that you could find everything you want quickly and easily, and even search among your files for a particular word or phrase? This is what reference management software can do for you.

Lots of different software exists, but they all do pretty much the same thing. I’m going to illustrate the discussion with examples from a bit of software called Mendeley, as it’s the one that I currently use – I’ve used others in the past, but Mendeley has a lot of features that I’m a fan of, the primary one being that it’s totally free. Mendeley consists of a piece of desktop software which you download and install, and a linked account on its website: Downloaded pdfs can be dragged-and-dropped into the desktop client, which will then attempt to extract ‘meta-data’ from them – that means it will extract information about the authors, title of the paper, the journal it was published in, etc. What you end up with is something that looks like this:

Mendeley Desktop

A list of all your papers and resources in a nice click-able table where you can sort by author name, journal etc. You can create different collections of papers and references, for example if you’re working on two different essays. Furthermore, by hitting the ‘sync’ button on the toolbar, you can choose to upload your newly-created library (including all the pdfs, if you want) to your account on the Mendeley website, which means that your library is accessible from anywhere with an internet connection – very handy if, for instance, you want to do some research for a paper in your department’s computer room, and then have all the references available when you come to write the essay at home later on. You are allowed 500Mb of free web-space on Mendeley’s servers to store your data, which is enough for thousands of pdfs. Mendeley even make an iOS app, which means if you have an iPhone/iPod touch/iPad you can access your library and read pdfs from anywhere.

That’s all pretty cool, but the really cool bit is what it can do for your reference list when you’re actually writing the essay. Say you’re writing an essay on religion and you want to cite this paper by Boyer (2003).

Boyer, P. 2003. Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7, no. 3: 119-124. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00031-7.

You think I typed out this reference by hand? Are you kidding? I went to my Mendeley library, right-clicked on the paper, chose ‘copy citation’ and then hit ctrl-v to paste it in here. That’s it. Your reference is inserted with all the correct formatting, and even with a unique internet identifier (the ‘doi’ number at the end) if you choose. I find when I’m writing something that it’s helpful to have two documents open, the piece I’m writing and the reference list. Whenever I make a citation in the text, I quickly switch to the reference list and put in the reference too. That way, at the end of the essay, my reference list is always complete and accurate and I can just merge the two into a single document.

There are more sophisticated ways of using reference management software – many of them will integrate fairly tightly with Word, insert in-text citations in the correct format, and then  automatically generate an alphabetised and formatted reference list at the end, however I’ve always preferred to maintain a semi-manual way of doing things, and like to build my reference list as I go along. There are loads of other features to Mendeley, and there are many other systems which do similar things so I’d encourage interested readers to spend a bit of time looking around and reading up about what’s available. Just to be clear – I am in no way associated with the developers of Mendeley, other software is available, your mileage may vary, etc. etc.

So there you have it, the very best thing you can do to improve your grades, and make your life easier as a (psychology) student. Best of luck with it!

Further Reading:

Wikipedia page on the APA format
Zotero – another good tool, optimised for research on the web.
Endnote – a ‘traditional’ desktop based reference management system. Lots of academics use this.
Connotea – Another free, web-based service similar to Mendeley.

About Matt Wall

I do brains. BRAINZZZZ.

Posted on November 16, 2010, in Internet, Software, Study Skills and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Matt I’m wondering if you’ve tried out the reference manager ReadCube and/or if you have any thoughts about it? Seems like a nice clean interface and the recommendations feature looks pretty neat (it analyses your library and makes suggestions about related material). Also it has an “enhanced pdf” function which supports clickable in-line references among other things.

    its still in beta, and certainly missing some obvious things like syncing and nested organisation folders, but seems like they are responding to many user requests for new features.

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