Citation managers: Why you need one and how to make the most of them in grad school and beyond

Maybe you’ve heard of citation management software and maybe you haven’t but I am here to tell you why you need one for library school and life beyond library school. One of the best pieces of advice I got in 2019 as I was starting into the work of my first semester of my MLIS was from the science librarian at the academic library where I work. She told me I needed to download a citation manager and she was right, I downloaded Zotero, figured our how to use it, and it has been my best piece of software for getting through this program. Used properly a citation manager is a fantastically powerful tool for a library students. It allows you to corral all your readings and research sources for every course you take in folders and subfolders. I have a different folder set up for each course and professional development activity, including one for Hack Library School. Then I have a set of subfolders in every course for weekly topics and one for each assignment. Library school, at least in the core courses, does tend to repeat the same readings in multiple classes. If you’re using a citation manager to track that you can go back and see last time a reading was assigned easily and then go and find your notes on it so you can build on it again. This is also a very useful this when it comes to working on your assignments because you’ll find foundational readings that can work across multiple assignments in multiple courses. You can also use them to auto-generate your bibliographies and works cited pages for you a variety of citation styles (but you will still need to tweak them, it’s just easier and more efficient than starting from scratch). You can even to bibliographic research on yourself and use your citation manager to see where your research interests lie and what pieces you’ve used most often. There are three big citation managers and each one has its pros and cons let’s dig into those now. The big three are: RefWorks, Zotero, and Mendeley.



  • You may have encountered this tool during undergad if you were ever in a course that had library instruction on citation management.
  • Owned by ProQuest (this could be a con if you mind using a product owned by a major publisher/vendor).
  • Has a Microsoft Word AND Google Docs plug-ins.
  • Import plug-ins available for multiple browsers. (IE, Edge, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome.)
  • Accounts are free if your school has a subscription.
  • 100% web-based interface means never worrying about whether it will sync across devices properly.
  • All ProQuest databases contain direct exporting features into it.
  • Allows you to annotate PDFs directly in the interface.
  • Mobile friendly site available.


  • RefWorks is not free, it requires a license. Most schools will have an institutional license if they are big enough to be able to afford one.
  • You only get access while attached to an institution with a license. (Some schools may give alumni access)
  • Owned by ProQuest (this could be a pro if you don’t mind using a product owned by a major publisher/vendor).
  • File storage space can be limited by your institution.
  • Item metadata may need cleaning up.
  • No offline availability.

Overall thoughts

If you know for a fact you won’t be conducting research once you’re out of grad school and you don’t mind using proprietary software you might lose access to after graduation then this is a great option because of how widely used it it. There is a lot of support documentation on its powers and abilities around the web. I recommend exporting ALL of your citations right before graduation just in case you don’t get to keep access.



  • Free and open source.
  • Well supported and active user forums and community.
  • Works on Macs, and both Windows and Linux based PCS.
  • Has a barcode scanning import tool for iOS. (Among dozens of others)
  • Has a Microsoft Word plug-in AND one for Google Docs AND another for LibreOffice.
  • Has a browser based interface that syncs up with every installation of the client.
  • Client can be set up to sync across devices.
  • Has import plug-ins for all major browsers.
  • Client-based storage space is only limited by your computer’s hard drive(s).
  • Can search within PDF files it has stored.
  • For you STEM librarians in the making, it works with LaTEX.
  • Can be used collaboratively for group work.
  • Will automatically attach and store PDF copies of items where available (double click on the record to open them).
  • Mobile compatibility for Android and iOS devices.
  • Local storage offers offline availability.


  • List of citation types is not exhaustive. Has the most common types of items but does not do well with other things like Tweets, other social media posts for example.
  • Item metadata may need cleaning up.
  • Extra web-based storage (beyond 300 MB) costs money.
  • Cannot annotate PDFs or read them within the Zotero interface.

Overall thoughts

Bias alert – Zotero is the product that I use and love and hyper of to everyone I know but I am doing my very best to be objective here! It really is an incredibly robust and efficient tool though and I think that comes down to the vibrant and diverse development community of dedicated users. I’ve been using it for two years now and I still haven’t explored all of the features it has to offer!



  • Works on Macs, and both Windows and Linux based PCS.
  • Owned by Elsevier (this could be a con if you mind using a product owned by a major publisher/vendor).
  • Originally developed by PhD researchers for researchers, and to their credit Elsevier DOES say that they still take feedback from researchers to make improvements.
  • Accounts are free to create.
  • Up to 2GB of storage.
  • Allows you to tag records.
  • Can be used collaboratively with groups (although this process was a wee bit convoluted when a group and I tried to set it up for some research we wanted to do).
  • Android and iOS apps available (UPDATE 3/11/21 As pointed out in the comments these have been discontinued, so that’s a con!)
  • Will sync across devices for you.
  • Browser compatibility with IE, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari
  • Plug-ins for Microsoft Word and LibreOffice
  • Local storage offers offline availability.


  • Not compatible with Google Docs
  • Owned by Elsevier (this could be a pro if you don’t mind using a product owned by a major publisher/vendor).
  • Will remove your duplicates for you, without asking.
  • Doesn’t play well with EBSCO products apparently.
  • UPDATE 3/11/21 Mobile app support has been discontinued.

Overall thoughts

Mendeley tends to be the one most libraries will recommend if they get rid of their RefWorks license, usually because like RefWorks it is also backed by a big vendor. It’s definitely sleek and streamlined but I personally find it more complicated than Zotero and only really resort to using it if I’m collaborating with someone who uses it instead of Zotero. Like RefWorks you’re really bound to the out of the box features with Mendeley – Elsevier is deciding for you what you want your citation manager to be able to do.

Final Thoughts

A citation manager really will save your butt in grad school and will continue to be useful if the type of library and information work you go into will require any form of research. Knowing how to use one or more of these services will also come in handy if you plan on just working with students, faculty, or researchers so you can speak knowledgably on them to provide advice and guidance when they have questions. I’d suggest you take all of the big three for a test drive to see which one suits you the best, but I do recommend picking and sticking with just one of them as your main service if you can. As I’ve learned from using Mendeley for a specific project with some co-workers, moving stuff between Zotero and Mendeley or vice versa can be a pain in the butt.

In addition to being a Contributing Writer here at Hack Library School, Lauren (she/her) is currently in the final semester of her MLIS part-time, online, through the University of Alberta, she expects to graduate in Spring 2022She holds an honours BA in English/Religion & Culture and a BEd, both from Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interests are copyright, open education; accessibility; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS. Lauren is the Copyright and Reserves Supervisor at Wilfrid Laurier University, serving on the Library’s Accessibility Committee, and the Student Advisory Council. She also co-hosts a bi-weekly Twitter chat on library issues and trends (#lisprochat) and was a research assistant on the Opening Up Copyright project in 2020-21. Find her: @rendages, @lisprochat |

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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