PhD on Track » Review and Discover » Reference managers

Reference managers


Over the course of your PhD studies you will collect, read and review a large body of literature and information in various formats. Keeping track of the literature you encounter can be facilitated by using a reference manager. An efficient reference management workflow simplifies the academic writing process.

This page will focus on

  • Practical and efficient reference management
  • Choosing a reference manager
  • Building your reference library
  • Sharing references with colleagues

Choosing a reference manager

A reference manager is the software you use to handle references and full-text documents, and citations while writing. References can be handled manually as well, but the reference manager allows for greater flexibility and efficiency.

The scientific disciplines vary in how references are written and consequently in how references are managed. Therefore, some reference managers may be preferred within your discipline. Other factors are personal preferences and work style. Choose a reference manager that adapts easily to your way of working and lets you establish an efficient workflow. Take a look at the following statements and consider how important they are to your research:

  • I want to collect both references and full text-articles
  • I want to archive and organise my references
  • I want to share a pool of references with my co-authors
  • I need a device-independent solution and prefer cloud storage
  • It is important to synchronise my reference database across devices
  • I have to be able to edit reference styles when I publish my articles in particular journals
  • I want to share annotations and I discuss references with people in my research communities

Brief descriptions of reference managers:

There are several reference managers to choose from. Here are a few of the most popular ones. Click on Show more for a brief description of their main features.

End Note enables you to create a database, called a library (with file extension. enl.- and a corresponding folder), for your collected references. You may add references manually by typing in the bibliographic data, or you can export citations to your library from the different reference or literature databases you normally use to search for literature. Most databases provide solutions for exporting citations to Endnote. Additionally EndNote provides functionality for storing and organising full text, such as PDFs, on your computer. Used together with Microsoft Word, or Open Office  – or Libre Office the feature Cite While You Write TM enables you to insert and organise citations in your text. EndNote is a commercial software package. Check if a site licence is provided by your institution.

EndNote Web
EndNote Web is the web-based version of EndNote, which means that it is accessible from anywhere. This version is a better choice than EndNote when it comes to collaboration and sharing of a reference management software with colleagues or peers.

Ref Works
RefWorks is a web-based reference manager. One can set up both individual and joint accounts. References can be added manually or by transfer from databases. When writing, RefWorks allow you to insert citations and create bibliographies. A variety of reference styles is available, which allows for easy customisation when preparing manuscripts for publication.

Zotero is good for collecting full-text documents and for sharing a library with researchers. Zotero is open source, plug-in based, and free of charge. It works with Chrome, Firefox and Safari browsers, and it is possible to connect a Zotero library to Microsoft Word, Open Office, Libre Office, and to export the bibliography to BibTeX for reference management. Zotero is considered user-friendly with an interface similar to that of widely used music library applications. Through cloud storage you can reach your articles from any computer with an Internet connection, which makes it easy and convenient to access your library from anywhere and to share it with your peers.

Mendeley is a reference manager and collaboration tool available from The desktop client is free and available for Windows, Mac OS and Linux.  You can also access your account via the web or an iPhone/iPad-app. References are conveniently imported directly from PDFs, but can also be exported from a number of databases and web sites. Annotation, highlighting and adding notes, can be done directly to your PDFs. Both references and PDFs can be organised in folders and shared in groups. Mendeley may also be used to create an academic profile, upload papers, publicise research and search for papers and new collaborators. The free account includes 1GB of online storage. For more storage and sharing with larger groups of colleagues, different fees apply.

BibTex-/- BibLatex
LaTeX is a powerful document typesetting system highly recommended for the production of technical and scientific documentation. LaTeX is open source software distributed under a free public licence. It is available for most operating systems. Compared to conventional word processors such as Microsoft Word, LaTeX gives better control, flexibility and typesetting quality, but requires more effort to learn . LaTeX offers high quality programmable desktop publishing, mathematical typesetting, automatic numbering, cross-referencing, tables and figures, page layout and bibliography management. Citations and bibliographies can be automatically integrated into a latex document using the programme BibTeX. A BibTeX library is a text-file that can either be generated from other reference managers such as EndNote, Mendeley, Zotero, BibDesk or JabRef, or managed manually using any text editor. Many scholarly databases can export references in BibTeX-format that can be inserted directly into a BibTeX-file. The end product in LaTeX is a Postscript or PDF document where citations and reference lists are automatically generated on the basis of a specified reference style. For more information see LaTeX

Compiling your reference library

A modern reference manager can store both a reference and an accompanying full-text version of the referenced work. Your reference manager can thus function as your own research library directly in your computer and gives easy access to your literature.

Building your collection

Make a habit of storing all useful references to research literature as you come across them. This practice will save time later when you are writing.

Building your reference collection can be done in several ways and you will probably use them all at some point.

  • Registering the reference manually – this is mostly done for older material not readily available online, especially books and grey literature
  • Transferring from reference databases like Web of Knowledge or PubMed;- here you may transfer large sets of references
  • Downloading a reference at the journal home page
  • Downloading references from Google Scholar
  • Pulling reference data from the PDF of the article

Always check references for accuracy; proofreading references directly saves time later and allows you to focus on writing when you use the reference.

Organising your references

As your collection of references mounts up you will need to organise them, which can be done in a number of ways. It is always useful to be able to sort the library according to:

  • author
  • year
  • title
  • type of reference
  • topic

A particularly useful feature in many reference managers is the possibility of creating your own keywords. When downloading references you can choose to include the topical keywords provided. However, you may need to index your references differently than in the source, and creating your own keywords will let you do that. By adapting keywords based on your own retrieval needs you ensure efficient access to the relevant literature in your library.

Keeping notes is useful when working with literature. Many reference managers allow you to store such notes in conjunction with the reference. Some reference managers also allow notetaking in and highlighting full-text documents.


Different journals and publishers, or the institution where you eventually submit your thesis, will have guidelines for citations and reference lists. Explore how you can import and edit reference styles with your reference manager.

You may prefer to use an author-date reference style as this immediately shows which work is cited.

Cote-Arsenault, D., & Morrison-Beedy, D. (2005). Maintaining your focus in focus groups: Avoiding common mistakes. Research in Nursing & Health, 28(2), 172-179. doi: 10.1002/nur.20063
Drahota, A., & Dewey, A. (2008). The sociogram – A useful tool in the analysis of focus groups. Nursing Research, 57(4), 293-297. doi: 10.1097/01.nnr.0000313489.49165.97
Freeman, T. (2006). ‘Best practice’ in focus group research: making sense of different views. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 56(5), 491-497. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2006.04043.x
Jayasekara, R. S. (2012). Focus groups in nursing research: Methodological perspectives. Nursing Outlook, 60(6), 411-416. doi: 10.1016/j.outlook.2012.02.001
Jones, J., & Barry, M. M. (2011). Developing a scale to measure trust in health promotion partnerships. Health Promot Int, 26(4), 484-491. doi: 10.1093/heapro/dar007
Krueger, R. A. (2006). Analyzing focus group interviews. J Wound Ostomy Continence Nurs, 33(5), 478-481.
Lambert, S. D., & Loiselle, C. G. (2008). Combining individual interviews and focus groups to enhance data richness. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 62(2), 228-237. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2007.04559.x
Wyatt, T. H., Krauskopf, P. B., & Davidson, R. (2008). Using Focus Groups for Program Planning and Evaluation. Journal of School Nursing, 24(2), 71-77. doi: 10.1177/10598405080240020401

However, your publisher favours a numbered reference style and you need to adapt your manuscript. By simply changing the reference style in your reference manager, all the citations and the reference list in your manuscript change to the publishers style.

1. Krueger RA: Analyzing focus group interviews. J Wound Ostomy Continence Nurs 2006, 33:478-481.
2. Freeman T: ‘Best practice’ in focus group research: making sense of different views. J Adv Nurs 2006, 56:491-497.
3. Lambert SD, Loiselle CG: Combining individual interviews and focus groups to enhance data richness. J Adv Nurs 2008, 62:228-237.
4. Jones J, Barry MM: Developing a scale to measure trust in health promotion partnerships. Health Promot Int 2011, 26:484-491.
5. Jayasekara RS: Focus groups in nursing research: Methodological perspectives. Nurs Outlook 2012, 60:411-416.
6. Cote-Arsenault D, Morrison-Beedy D: Maintaining your focus in focus groups: Avoiding common mistakes. Res Nurs Health 2005, 28:172-179.
7. Drahota A, Dewey A: The sociogram – A useful tool in the analysis of focus groups. Nurs Res 2008, 57:293-297.
8. Wyatt TH, Krauskopf PB, Davidson R: Using Focus Groups for Program Planning and Evaluation. J Sch Nurs 2008, 24:71-77.

The examples are made using EndNote X6, with APA 6th as an example of an author-date reference style, and Biomed Central as an example of a numbered reference style.

Sharing your references

When working in a networked environment, sharing literature and references with our colleagues should be easy. A reference manager may facilitate effective sharing.

Though the references in your library refer back to literature you use or deem relevant, they would be equally relevant to other researchers in your field. If you work in a research group, sharing your reference libraries can provide a common and collective knowledge base.

Social media allow for sharing of references with researchers outside your closest circles, providing opportunities to find new and interesting research literature and to make new contacts. In particular, you may find recommendations or annotations of the works as well, giving an immediate understanding of the usefulness of the new reference.

Support services

Your university will have support services concerning reference managers.

Tutorials for reference managers

The following selection shows availability and support provided at the University of Oslo, University of Bergen, Norwegian School of Economics and Bergen University College.

A s k -u s