One very common question that comes up, from both students and researchers, is: “What is the best citation tool for doing X?”

It’s an excellent question because every year another slew of citation management tools, apps, and software materialize. Often each new app or tool offers a new twist, but basically they help you organize and retrieve information, such as citations for books, articles, and websites by interfacing with library databases. The citation manager works with word-processing software to insert (hopefully) properly formatted footnotes, end-notes, and citations into a paper to create a formatted bibliography. Some tools do a better job of this than others.

Citation tools come in a variety of flavors…for example:

  • Some let you tag and annotate your citations, while others work well in terms of inserting citations and bibliographies into Microsoft Word. Often managers will have a plug-in for Word and some also have browser plug-ins to help capture web links more easily.
  • Many managers have connections that can be turned on for Google Scholar and article databases available to you through the library.
  • Some tools also try to foster group-based collaborative research. Some are designed for specific platforms, some can work on the desktop or online.
  • Some tools focus on managing the PDFs of papers, which can be incredibly useful if you’ve downloaded lots of them.
  • Some are software on the desktop, others are online, some are a hybrid and can sync between desktop and online versions.
  • Some are free, some cost money.
  • Refworks is available freely to JHU students, staff and researchers.

…see why it can be confusing? It’s been hard for us to keep up also, so don’t feel bad! We’ve created a guide to help sort through popular citation tools. Each tool has its own strengths and weaknesses…they also change and improve their functionality frequently. A 2015 Nature article offers an overview to 8 tools that are frequently popular with researchers. Also, there’s a great Wikipedia table comparing many tools.

When somebody asks what is the absolute best citation management tool to accomplish what I want to do? It’s not straightforward because there is no one single answer…it comes down to what features of a citation management tool best match what you want to accomplish.

If you have a favorite citation manager, please share in the comments…especially if it’s not one that we’ve listed on our citation manager guide! If you’d like help with selecting a tool, please feel free to contact us.


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