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Citation and Reference Management

What is a reference manager?

Citation, reference, or bibliographic managers are software tools used to:

  • Collect, organize, and share bibliographic references
  • Automatically retrieve full-text PDFs of journal articles and book chapters
  • Automate insertion and formatting of citations and bibliographies into word processing documents
  • Build a personal database of research interests
  • Collaborate with colleagues on manuscripts

Why use a reference manager?

Before reference management software tools existed, people typically collected references on handwritten index cards, and they formatted the citations and bibliographies in their documents by hand, with the help of a style guide. It was difficult and time-consuming work. 

Reference management software eliminates much of this work. They greatly simplify the process of collecting references, allowing you to import saved search results from bibliographic databases and capture references while browsing the web. Reference managers allow you to organize and search your personal reference collection, and they automate the insertion of citations into your documents, taking care of the formatting and ordering of references in the bibliography for you.  They also make it very easy to change the citation style used in a document.

Which reference manager should you use?

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a reference manager.


Some reference managers are available free of cost, others are paid. Your school or employer may cover the cost of a license for you. At OHSU, you can get a licensed version of EndNote from the Library.

Distribution Model

Both open source and proprietary reference managers are available. Some people prefer to use open source software, other people don't mind paying to use a proprietary product.

Operating System Support

Most popular reference management tools run on Windows and macOS. A few run on Linux or ChromeOS, and even fewer run on phone operating systems like iOS or Android.

Word Processor and Web Browser Integration

Most reference management tools integrate with desktop versions of Microsoft Word, but other word processors like Word Online, macOS Pages or Google Docs are not supported.

When a reference manager has a web browser extension, add-on, or bookmarklet, it may not work in all web browsers.


Sometimes the choice of software is not up to you; a professor or the PI of your lab may dictate what you use, or maybe you are collaborating with a group of people and need to choose a tool that everyone can access for free and that has good support for sharing and managing references together.

What shouldn't you use a reference manager for?

Storing Project Files

Reference managers are not designed to store all the files and data related to a project. If it's not a bibliographic reference that you intend to cite in a document, keep it in a folder on your hard drive, or in cloud storage if you're collaborating with others.

Storing Web Bookmarks

Some reference managers make it very easy to capture web pages from your web browser, which can make it tempting to use it as a bookmarking tool. This is a good way to make a mess of your reference library and should be avoided.


Term Definition

Bibliographic Library

A database of information about Sources, stored as individual records called Reference Items. Often shortened to Library.


A Reference List that may also contain additional References that are not cited in the text of a document, but which may have informed the authors' thinking on the topic and which readers may find of interest.


Citations appear in the text of a document and point readers to a Reference.

Citation Style

How Citations, References, Reference Lists, and Bibliographies are formatted in a document. Some common Citation Styles are APA, AMA, MLA, and Chicago.


Part of a Reference Item that contains a piece of information about a Source such as Author, Title, Year, etc.


References appear in a Reference List or Bibliography at the end of a document. They give credit to a Source and describe it with enough detail to allow readers to find it themselves.

Reference Item

An individual record in a Bibliographic Library containing Fields that describe a Source and is used to create Citations and References in documents.

Reference List

A list at the end of a document that contains the complete list of References cited in the text of the document.

Reference Manager

A software package used to create, manage, and organize Reference Items in a Bibliographic Library, to insert formatted Citations, References, Reference Lists, and Bibliographies into word processing documents, and to quickly and easily change the Citation Style used in a document.

Reference Managers are also referred to as Citation Managers or Bibliographic Management Software.

Reference Type

Templates for Reference Items that contain appropriate sets of Fields for different types of Sources.


An individual journal article, book, book chapter, newspaper article, conference proceeding, etc. that may be cited or referenced in a document.