7 Best Referencing Tools and Citation Management Software for Academic Writing

by Paperpal
citation tools

It has been estimated that early career researchers and scientists spend 23%, or almost a quarter, of their working hours reading.¹ While this is a great way to learn from previous findings and insights and stay abreast of the latest developments, keeping track of the sheer volume of scientific literature and ensuring accurate citations can pose a challenge for even the most seasoned academicians. This is where referencing tools and citation management software come in handy.   

What are reference management tools?   

Reference management tools or literature review software are online applications which can prove invaluable to researchers in their efforts to create, store, manage and format accurate citations that can be retrieved when required. Research management tools can help to –  

  • import and save bibliographic references from search engines, databases, and websites,   
  • create personalized research reading feeds and offer daily recommendations,  
  • organize articles into categories, and tag them with keywords for quick access at a later stage,  
  • ensure consistency in formatting citations to different reference styles (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago).  

In fact, the benefits of utilizing reference management tools extend far beyond simply keeping references organized. They eliminate the need for manual data entry and minimize the risk of mistakes and inconsistencies when creating citations. Reference management tools allow researchers to focus on their writing and not waste precious time in formatting references. Moreover, some reference management tools also offer an exciting collaboration feature that enables researchers to share their reference library with colleagues and co-authors, thereby encouraging more productive research.  

How to choose the best reference management tool for academic writing?  

While researchers can take their pick from the many reference management apps available online, many find themselves wondering how to select the citation tool that best fits their specific needs. Making an informed decision before you start using reference management software is crucial if you want to avoid unnecessary hassles down the line. Switching between applications at a later stage, while possible, is very tedious and inconvenient, since the longer you use the application, the more files you collect.  

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when making your choice –   

  • Price: Consider your budget and evaluate whether the paid features justify the cost. Today, there are several excellent free and paid options. Choose one that will not burn a hole in your pocket.  
  • Access: Check whether the reference management tool has access to the specific databases and journals that you frequently access. Also, it ensures its ability to retrieve references from various sources and disciplines.   
  • Features: Look up the features that the citation software offers and check if they meet your needs—for example, does it have automatic formatting or annotation capabilities? Does it offer secure cloud storage and a backup plan?  
  • Quality: Spend a few minutes exploring the citation tool. This will give you an idea of its features and interface’s quality and help you assess its usability and efficiency. Look up user reviews and see if customer support is easily available.  
  • Accuracy: Ensure that the reference management tool reliably and accurately formats citations in a variety of citation styles and delivers error-free output.  
  • Compatibility: Evaluate whether the citation software you are considering is compatible with your operating system and word processing software.   
  • Privacy: Assess privacy policies and ensure that there are no concerns. This may be an issue if a commercial publisher owns the tool. 

Top 7 Referencing and Citation Management Tools

Referencing Tool  Pros  Cons  Compatibility 
Zotero  Free and open source, strong citation management, offers browser extensions and collaborative features  Can be complex to use and has been known to have compatibility issues with certain websites  Windows, macOS, Linux 
Mendeley  Has a user-friendly interface, good social networking features, and offers PDF annotation. It has a basic plan that is free and premium plans that come with a fee  Less customizable than Zotero, this tool has limited free storage, and is not as powerful as some of the other tools  Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, Android 
EndNote  Comprehensive citation styles and advanced features for organizing references make this app very effective  There are limited free options and the proprietary software makes the app expensive  Windows, macOS 
RefWorks  This tool is easy to use and has great collaboration features   Limited customization and is not as flexible as other tools. Plus, it is subscription based and not free  Web-based 
Paperpile  Lightweight, functional, and well-designed interface  Works only with Google Doc for now  A web-only app, it works only with Google Doc for now 
ReadCube  Has advanced search features that allows automatic metadata extraction and article identification. Also has a user-friendly design that makes it easy to use  Some users have faced issues with formatting while others have pointed out that the selection tool is not the best  Windows, macOS 
Citavi  Integrates citation management with note-taking and has extensive search capabilities  It is a paid software and is expensive. Also, the user interface can be overwhelming for some   Windows 

Finally, when making your decision on the choice of referencing software to be used, do ensure that the features meet your specific needs, such as working across multiple locations, managing large libraries, or customizing citation styles.  


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5746228/ 

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