Using reference management software

There are many things to consider when choosing reference management software. They all do similar things, but the best choice may depend on your workflow, or particular functions, or just personal preference.

Common features

All reference management software will:

  • Store references in a searchable database
  • Attach PDFs and other files
  • Auto-generate citations and bibliographies/ reference lists in your document
  • Share collections of references with others
  • Sync your references across multiple devices

What doesn't reference management software do?

May not create a perfect bibliography or reference list according to your preferred style (or your supervisor’s or tutor’s).

You still need to be familiar with the referencing style to be used. Refer to Style Manuals to understand the requirements. In some programs, it is possible to adjust or edit output styles.

Will not correct typos or errors or omissions from references manually entered or downloaded from databases.

You will always need to proofread references for accuracy: punctuation, capitalisation, spelling.

When downloading references from databases the program may not always know what reference type you are downloading.

For example, they cannot always distinguish a conference proceeding from a book. Also, some information may be inserted in the wrong format requiring editing.

Changing your reference manager

There are a number of reasons you may find that you want to change the reference manager that you are using. You can use the comparison table below to find what software has the functions and features that suit you best.  Then, have a look at some guides to changing software.

Comparison of the products and features






Ease of useHarder to learn initially Easy to useEasy to useModerate level
CostFree to UniMelb usersFree (for first 2GB)FreeFree
Institutional accessYesYes - create an account then upgrade N/AYes
Currently supported by the LibraryYesYesYesNo
Library training availableYesYesYesNo
Open sourceNoNoYesNo
Operating systemWindows, Mac

Windows, Linux,

MAC not recommended * doesn't support OS after 10.13 (High Sierra)

Mendeley Desktop does not support macOS 11 Big Sur. If you choose to upgrade to macOS 11 Big Sur you may be unable to install or access Mendeley Desktop.

Windows, Mac, LinuxWindows, Mac (Write-N-Cite not yet available) 
BrowserN/AInternet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari

Firefox, Chrome, Edge.

Safari version 13 onwards in beta

Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, 
Work offlineDesktop (yes), Web (no)YesYesYes (old version)
Maximum number of records per folderUnlimitedLimited only by storage30,000Unlimited
Folder levels2Multiple Multiple2
Number of source types45203331
Support of special charactersNoYesYesYes (old version)
Link to PDFsYesYesYesYes (old version)
Work with word processor to create formatted bibliographies, in-text citations and footnotes


(Word, Pages)


(Word, Libre Office, Open Office) 

Yes (Word, Libre Office, Open Office, Google Docs) 

Yes (old version)

Yes (new version Word, Google Docs)

Number of referencing styles availableOver 6000Over 9000over 9000Over 3000
Can create a formatted list of charts, figures etc. YesNoNoNo
Collaboration featuresYesYesYesYes  
Sharing referencesDifficultYesYesYes
Mobile device applicationsiOSiOS, AndroidPossible with add ons 
Export to BibTeXYesYesYesYes
Ease of use in ShareLaTeXPossible but difficultEasy integrationEasy integration 
Languages availableLanguage set from operating system settings50 availableLanguage set from operating system settingsEnglish, Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Chinese
Attachment storageYesYesYesYes (limited)
Spell-checkYesNoNo No
Duplicate detectionYesYesYesYes
Field searchingYes, authorYesYes - plain text and RegEx searching Yes, selected
Save search strategies Yes, desktopNoYesYes
Can you edit/create stylesYes, desktopMust edit Citation Style Language fileMust edit Citation Style Language fileMust edit Citation Style Language file
Create a subject bibliographyYes, desktopYesYesNo
Importing citations from: 
~ library databasesYesYesYesYes
~ library catalogueYesYesYesYes
~ from websitesNoYesYesNo

A checklist for getting started

  1. Check system compatibility (there will be information on the tool’s website)
  2. Download and install the program
  3. Download and install any browser plug-ins
  4. Create an account and link to the online or cloud version (where relevant)
  5. Check for library classes and webinars
  6. Locate online tutorials and FAQs

Other considerations

  • What are others in my field using?

    This becomes important if you need to share references with your supervisor or a research group. Take a look at the recommended programs for different faculties or chat to your colleagues.

  • Where are the files stored?

    Some reference managers are downloaded to your hard drive, with the option of syncing to a cloud service, and some have web only versions.

  • How much storage do you need?

    Some reference managers are more generous with storage allowances. See the following for advice:

  • Do you need to use formulas in your document?

    Some reference managers are better at handling formulas. Try Endnote or JabRef

  • Do you need to sync your library across multiple devices?

    Endnote, Zotero and Mendeley all have web versions that can sync with desktop versions. NOTE: please do not rely on syncing as your only backup.

  • What level of support is available?

    This can vary depending on whether the reference manager is a commercial product or open-source. For example, EndNote and Mendeley are commercial products, whilst Zotero is open source.

  • What are the options for organising and searching the library?

    This becomes important as your library grows.

Which software program is recommended for my discipline?

The following table gives you suggestions on what others in your field are using. Please consult your lecturer or supervisor for further advice.

ArtsZotero, EndNote
Business and EconomicsEndNote, Mendeley
EducationZotero, EndNote
Science/EngineeringJabRef (for LaTex users), Zotero, EndNote, Mendeley
Fine Arts and MusicZotero, EndNote

Choose your reference management software

Find out what software the University Library supports and how to use it.