The Evolution of Reference Managers
Love them or hate them, reference managers have become a critical part of modern research. We break down some new players in the space that you should look into before starting your next project.
Reliance on a good reference manger is one the most time-saving and transformational research habits to master. In fact, the best reference managers do much more than simply help you make citations. If you’re not using a reference manager quite yet, or you feel like you’re wasting too much time with your current workflow, read on.
In the early days of research, before major research databases like Google Scholar or PubMed were around, people relied on personal bibliographic databases. When these databases became more common in the 1990s, the software evolved more into what we use it for today: reference managers. One of these ’90s managers has lasted the test of time and is still fairly popular today, Endnote. But the evolution of these tools didn’t stop here.
Today, reference mangers permeate other aspects of research including annotating PDFs, creating notes and organising knowledge. Moreover, managing your research library within a reference manager allows you to rely on a larger set of time-saving tools that help you conduct research. For example, Litmaps allows you to import an existing collection from a reference manager into Litmaps Discover, so that it takes only a few minutes to start finding gaps in your research.
Although plenty of reference managers exist on the market, three big players dominate: Endnote, Mendeley and Zotero. Chances are, you’ve probably already used one of these. So instead, we’ll focus on the newer generation of reference managers that aim to optimise the same workflow, but in a more streamlined and low-cost fashion. Practically all of them offer the full scope of features you’d want: from annotating PDFs to easily managing and sharing references to exporting stylised citations with thousands of formatting options. Most go farther with note-taking functionality, providing efficient ways to store and organise knowledge. With loads of features at minimal cost, we think these tools are worth looking into in order to optimise your research workflow.
Paperpile was founded by three computational biologists with the goal to simplify the workflow of collecting and writing papers. Its features cover the gambit of the research process, including searching, organising, annotating and citing papers. Paperpile was designed with collaboration in mind and blends seamlessly with Google Drive. They’ve just added a Litmaps integration too – you can save articles straight from Seed Maps and Discover. You’ll have to try it out to see for yourself. Free for 30 days and then starts at USD$2.99 per month.
Papers is a reference management tool made by researchers for researchers. Like the other managers on this list, this one integrates easily into Google Docs. It supports 9,000+ citation styles. If that’s somehow not enough, you can even create your own. It’s got all the great search, organisation, sharing and citations features you’d want, plus unlimited cloud storage across devices. It’s around USD$3-$5 per month and has discounts too.
Citavi’s goal is to help you organise your knowledge in addition to your references. You can analyse text, annotate PDFs, make notes, and keep track of ideas via it’s “Knowledge Organiser”. You can save up to 100 references with the free version to give it a try, but it’s on the pricier side after that.
Jabref is a free, open-source reference manager, around since 2003. It’s developed and maintained by a team of PhD students, postdocs and researchers, who always welcome new contributors. With less features than the paid apps above, it’s a more streamlined software, focused on the collecting, organising and citing of papers. It’s especially great if you’re already using LaTeX since it has native BibTeX and BibLaTeX support.
RefWorks is one of the most widely available reference managers through academic institutions. Over 80% of US research libraries subscribe to RefWorks. Your institution likely already has a license for it. Like the other tools here, it allows for organising, annotating and sharing. It integrates with MS Word and Google Docs, and can sync your documents with Dropbox. However, like many of the tools on this list, it doesn’t offer within-PDF search, like Zotero. But it does have a convenient “find full text” option to download the full-text for references you find. Assuming you’re able to use RefWorks through your institution or library, you don’t need to pay at all.
Comparison between RefWorks, Endnote and Zotero
Wikipedia’s comparison of reference management software
10 Best EndNote Alternatives 2023, including other tools like Qiqqa and Weava
11 tips to help you get the most out of your citation software, from Citavi