Why you should consider using a reference manager

In this post, SGSAH blogger Garry Mac discusses a controversial topic – reference management software! While everyone has their own thoughts on this, if you’re drowning in a sea of sources, this article might just convince you to get a little software help.

PhD research requires a lot of reading and citation of sources – the average references in a thesis range from 100 to 300 or even 400. Keeping track of your sources can be time-consuming and complex, and you don’t want to be wrangling with these when you enter your write-up period. Everyone has a different opinion on how you should track your sources and references and, as with most things related to your research, only you will know which way works best for you. In this article, though, I’d like to talk about why I think using a reference manager is so important.

Why do we cite?

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The most fundamental reason for citing sources in your research is to distinguish between other people’s scholarship and your own original work. Using references fends off possible charges of plagiarism, for instance. However, the key reason to use citations is that you are expected to build your thesis upon the related work you’ve discovered during your literature review. Citation shows the work you have done regarding related scholarship, opposing viewpoints and gaps in knowledge that you’ve found.

Citation shows your academic integrity and research rigour, placing your own exploration within a larger context and proving to your assessors that you have taken care to credit every work that has helped to shape your own thesis. It is therefore incredibly important to use citations throughout to back up your assertions, provide points of comparison and reveal your breadth of knowledge and study, but it must be done with care.

How to cite

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There are multiple reference styles in use within academe, and to know which you should use, your best course is to talk to your supervisor and find out which referencing style your school/discipline prefers. When you come to write journal articles, though, you might find you’re asked to use a style you’re not used to. Again, talk to your supervisor and research the new style online.

Broadly speaking, a reference is a key that directs readers to the source of your information in the clearest and most efficient way possible. For instance, if you are referencing an academic text with articles by multiple authors, you’d need some combination of the following: title of the publication, publisher, editor(s) (for anthologies or collections), author(s), title of chapter or section, and the page. Further information usually provided includes the date of publication, the location of the publisher (some publishers work from several global locations) and any other relevant information such as web URLs or catalogue IDs.

The reason for such comprehensive styles is due to the sheer volume of academic scholarship available. The information you provide in your references should allow another scholar to quickly identify where you obtained your information, find the source themselves, and narrow down the location of that information as efficiently as possible. This type of system is partly what creates the vast rhizome of thought that constitutes academia, each piece of scholarship connected to a vast array of others. As you can see, however, this system is complex – even one citation and reference can contain a lot of information. Keeping track of this complexifies exponentially the more sources you use.

Using a reference manager

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There are a variety of reference managers out there. Some of the most popular management systems include Zotero, EndNote, Mendeley and Cite This For Me, but there are many more. For the sake of transparency, I use Mendeley, but each has its own benefits. Most of these are free for academic research, so there is no harm in trying out several to see which works best for you. A word of warning in advance, though: I’ve tried several managers over the years and each one of them is tricky and complex to use. Don’t expect an ‘out of the box’ experience – by necessity, each manager must be tailored to your own needs, and it will take a little time to ascertain the workflow and any individual quirks the software has (and there are many, across various products!).

Regardless of which one you use, the benefits are usually the same. They let you search literature, scan folders on your computer for content (usually in the form of PDFs), organise that catalogue and work in some way with other software you use.

For example, Mendeley has plug-ins for both Word and Chrome. While you’re browsing you can add references to your catalogue and if the page contains PDF content for that reference, you can save it directly to your collection. Barring the need to login to sites through Shibboleth and such, this plug-in really speeds up research and allows you to keep track of your referencing on the fly.

The Word plug-in is also incredibly capable. Hit a button to add a citation and it brings up a Mendeley search box that allows you to scan your collection for the correct source. It will add the citation in the format and style you’ve chosen (this is one area you spend a little time getting familiar with; managers should have all of the major styles built-in, but they can require fiddling to get the format exactly right. There are tutorials online that can help you with this!). Once your work is completed, click a button and Mendeley will add your bibliography to the end of the document, again in the styles and formats you’ve chosen.

If you’ve never used a reference manager, or if you tried but found it too, it’s hard to get across quite how much time and stress they save you. I’ve found Mendeley to be indispensable for keeping track of what is now a huge and potentially unwieldy collection of sources. Not all those sources will be used in my final thesis, and Mendeley allows me to quickly decide which ones I need, cite from them in-line within Word, and keep track of my bibliography. Referencing used to take up a lot of my writing time, but not anymore!

If you haven’t tried using a reference manager, give it a go – it might just improve your life!

Garry (Mac) McLaughlin is a 4th year PhD researcher in Comic Studies at the University of Dundee with co-supervision at the University of St. Andrews. His project explores queer temporality in comics and graphic novels, researching trans-temporal narrative mechanics within the systems of comics. It is practice-based and he is currently working on the key output, a comic called PRAXIS. He is from and resides in Glasgow, UK and has lived here for most of his life. Find him on Instagram as @queertempo and see progress on the comic at @praxis_comic.

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