Updated: Nov 22, 2020
by Suria Subiah
If you are writing up anything with a lot of references and the thought of organising your references and formatting your bibliography is stressing you out, do not panic! Here is a quick guide to help you organise your references and make this process smooth and easy.
Do not do it manually
If you are entering your references manually, there is a much quicker and easier way to do this! A variety of easy to use programs exist to help you sort out your references and using one is essential to managing a large number of references. A lot of them are free, have Word or LaTex plug-ins, and are very easy and intuitive to navigate. Depending on which program you choose, some of the very useful features include:
Being able to upload PDFs of articles and automatically detect and populate the fields like title, author, and publication date.
Being able to create a database of references which you can tag and search by author, keyword, title, and data, and access anywhere.
Grouping publications according to topic or theme.
Exporting the references as formatted citations in your chosen style and for your preferred writing program (for example, as text for a Word document, or as BibTeX entry for LaTeX).
Why should you use a reference manager?
If you are writing up your thesis, dissertation, or even a long document like a journal article with a lot of references, using a referencing software to organise your references will make your life so much easier.
Even if you are not at that stage yet, starting to populate your reference ‘library’ whenever you read a publication is a very good habit to get into. While it is never too late to start using a reference management software, it is never too early either!
The use of referencing software will help your bibliography be consistently well-formatted. It will also make it easier for you to find the references you are looking for and will also help you keep track of the literature you’ve read. In short, using a reference manager will greatly reduce the stress you might feel about organising your literature review and creating a correctly formatted bibliography.
Choosing a referencing software
A variety of reference management tools exist, and choosing the right one comes down to a matter of preference and seeing what works for you and what features you prefer. Some popular ones are included here (these are by no means the only ones out there, for an in-depth comparison see the Wikipedia article ‘Comparison of reference management software’). If your field has a specific referencing format preference, check to see if these programs include this option, or have a custom format feature. Other things to consider are whether they are free, export references to your preferred writing program, and have a sharing option if you collaborate with other researchers often.
Mendeley – free; generates citations for Word, LibreOffice, and LaTeX; syncs across platforms and has a research network feature where you can create a profile and participate in discussion groups, as well as set alerts for new articles to read and researchers to follow.
Zotero – free and open-source; syncs across all platforms; features automatic detection of academic research in your browser and the option to save content as you browse.
Refworks – paid (your institution may have a subscription); allows sharing using RefShare and citing references as you write with Write-n-Cite.
Endnote – paid (your institution may have a subscription); good for collaborating and sharing; Cite While You Write plug-in is available.
Personally, I prefer Mendeley because it is free, both web-based and downloadable as a desktop version, can be synced across different platforms, and includes all the features I need. However, it does not really matter which one you are using as long as you are using one. Try a few out and see what works for you – you will definitely not go back to manually creating references ever again!
Use a reference manager - Try out a few reference management programs and choose one that works for you.
Start early - It’s never too late to create your reference library but it’s never too early either. Using one early will make your life a lot easier later.
Populate as you read - Get into a habit of uploading references as you read them so that they are stored in your reference library.
Group and tag references - Group your references by theme, method, result, etc. which will allow you to organise your research by topic and feed into your writing sections. Use keywords to tag them so that they are easily searchable.
Suria Subiah did her BSc in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. She then pursued an MS in Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology in the US. She is currently a DPhil researcher in Engineering Science at the University of Oxford and her research is focused on exploring experimental hypersonic flows, which are the extremely high temperature, high-velocity gas flows experienced by space vehicles when entering the atmosphere.