Comparison of reference management tools

This post is part of 23 Things for Professional Development.

Thing 14 involves exploring a variety of reference management tools (RMTs).  Coincidentally, a student had asked me for help on this matter last week, and she and I decided to work through two tools together and compare our experiences.  Becky has agreed for her notes to be shared here – thank you!


One librarian, one undergraduate student, sufficient IT privileges to be able to download software, RefWorks, Zotero and some features to consider:

  • importing references
  • managing and/or editing the references once they’re in the system
  • exporting references into the document that you’re writing
  • formatting the bibliography


Becky and I worked alongside each other, following the same instructions and using at least three items to reference (a journal article, a webpage and a record from a database.

We set quite a short time limit on this experiment, because most people do not have hours to spend exploring these resources to find out which is most suitable for their needs.


Becky’s view:

Although I wasn’t looking forward to trying out the reference management software, progress was definitely made!

Zotero was much more intuitive – to start with I was able to download it without help and in a couple of minutes. Refworks made life much harder. This was the overall sense I got from Refworks; however, it does have some features (such as exporting in HFL format*) which would be really useful if I can get the hang of using it properly.

As to whether I will use software such as the above… Yes, if I can get around the problem of how the citations were formatted. If not I may fall back on manually entering everything…

*Citation style developed and required by the History Faculty, University of Oxford.

My experience:

I much preferred Zotero to RefWorks – I found the interface more appealing, it worked faster and I really like being able to use tags, which you can’t do in RefWorks.  Zotero also allows you to attach full-text articles to your references.

As a person who has always enjoyed poking around to see how things work and fit together (e.g. LEGO, Ikea furniture), I liked experimenting with these different sites.  However, talking to Becky helped me see that despite being digital natives, many students are not confident with new technology and do not know how to install plug-ins, and they are only motivated to discover these tools because their tutor or supervisor has told them they have to use them for their dissertations.

Perhaps I could help students make their first contact with RMTs by inviting them to bring their laptops to the library and walking them through the process.  However, I can’t easily do this for those who do not have laptops, as the library computers have their admin rights locked down so that you can’t install software on them.  Using these tools without the plug-ins is possible, but having to add all the details manually seems to defeat the object of using the tool to save time in the first place.


Whenever you try to teach anything to someone, you will often inadvertently educate them about something else.  In passing, I showed Becky how to use the e-Shelf (personalisation feature of our resource discovery interface) and this turned out to be really useful to her:

By the way, I’ve been using my e-shelf all afternoon and it’s so good! I can’t believe I’ve been ignoring something so useful for nearly two years!

The new academic year starts in October and I am going to try to use similar 1:1 teaching as much as I can, as although there exist a multitude of online library guides and workshops at Oxford, many students don’t use them and don’t know what they are missing.



  1. Sounds like you had a very productive time with Becky, and she with you. I think one of the biggest obstacles in the path of many of these reference management systems is that academics want a very specific referencing style used – often this is a variation on an existing style, which makes it very hard for zotero, refworks or anyone else to provide absolutely the style that your supervisor wants.
    But congratulations on a productive session.


  2. As for installation – check if you’re really unable to install Zotero: Many standard security settings do allow for FF add-ons to be installed. Else, complain to your IT department…

    Output formats: Zotero has about 400 different output styles covering around 1700 publications and institutions , but even if you can’t find the style you need, it is not that hard to edit yourself:
    easier citation style editing via a gui is being worked on.

  3. Pingback: cpd23 final reflection « Laura's Dark Archive

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