Reference Managers: Getting Started


Please visit the links in this section as you read through it, and read through the Zotero Documentation, especially after watching the accompanying software demonstration.


Now that I have introduced you to some of the different resources for information sources that exist (and we will learn about more), our next personal knowledge management challenge involves managing the information sources that we locate and want to use.

Imagine, for example, that we need to locate and use three academic sources for a class paper assignment. We could, like probably many do, search for information on the fly, locate some journal articles, figure out how to cite the articles, and manually add the citations to our Word documents. Perhaps if we're a little more advanced, we could download the papers to a folder on our computer for later reference (perhaps we have a folder dedicated to the class paper and even a subfolder dedicated to any readings that we download). Although that might be a bit more organized, it is the 21st century, and we have these computers that can do so much more for us than act as simple file cabinets. Basically, if we want to be more efficient, to save time, and to do a good job, then this is not the way.

Instead, we can use a reference manager (RM) (also called a citation manager). A RM is a piece of software that can help us manage this process of saving, collecting, and using information sources. Although generally aimed at academic users, RMs can also be used to bookmark, save, and collect all sorts of web and print information sources and for all sorts of outcomes, whether those outcomes are class papers, engineering projects, musical composition projects, biology experiments, and so on. Basically, if we use the web to collect and then use information, then this is the way.

Reference Manager Software

You are required to use a RM in this course, and I will focus on the Zotero RM. However, you are free to choose other options, even if I don't cover them, and there are many. Wikipedia has a page that lists around 20 RM options.

There are a few reasons I will focus on Zotero, though. First, I use it, and I know it fairly well, although I'm always learning new things about it. But most importantly, it's free (and open source software), it's consistently maintained and updated, it provides all the major functions that a RM should provide and more, and it's available on Windows and macOS desktop and laptop computers. For iOS (i.e., mobile) users, there is an app for the iPhone and iPad, but Android users can access their Zotero library using their phone's web browsers, which is just as good as the dedicated app.

If you elect to use an alternate RM, be aware that they are not all created equal. The two most popular, functional, and well-supported alternatives are Mendeley and EndNote. Both of these are are more academic-centric, while Zotero is more agnostic about source information and usage.

Mendeley and EndNote are more academically oriented because they are owned by companies involved with academic publishing and academic databases. Mendeley is owned by the company Elsevier, which provides the Scopus database, a bibliographic, abstract, and citation database, and publishes multiple journal titles. EndNote is owned by Clarivate, a research analytics company, which provides the Web of Science and ProQuest databases. Web of Science is a citation database like Scopus.


Gilmour & Cobus-Kuo (2011) identify eight functions that a RM should provide, and Zotero performs all of these functions. These functions include:

  1. Import citations from bibliographic databases and websites
  2. Gather metadata from PDF files
  3. Allow organization of citations w/in the reference manager database
  4. Allow annotations of citations
  5. Allow sharing of the reference management database
  6. Allow data interchange with other reference manager products through standard metadata formats
  7. Produce formatted citations in a variety of styles
  8. Work with word processing software to facilitate in-text citation (Gilmour & Cobus-Kuo, 2011, Introduction section).

Regardless of which RM we use, we want to pick one that performs most if not all of the above functions because these functions help us identify a useful app. Fortunately, the Zotero Quick Start Guide provides a nice overview of the basic functions and how to use those functions, and the additional documentation describes how to do more. Fortunately, Zotero satisfies the requirements listed above.

Specifically, the Zotero Quick Start Guide shows us how to:

  • Install and open the Zotero desktop/laptop application
  • Install and use the Zotero browser plugin
    • The download page provides links for using Zotero with:
      • Firefox
      • Edge
      • Chrome
      • Safari
  • How to collect items (e.g., books, articles, images, etc.)
  • What we can do with those items
  • How to create collections to organize items by topic, project, etc
  • How to use tags to add additional organizational layers
  • How to search, and save your searches, your Zotero library
  • How to import or add attachments (like PDF copies of your items)
  • How to add notes to your items
  • How to cite items in your papers, etc.
  • How to use Zotero with Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or other word processors
    • The word processor plugin provides links for using Zotero with Microsoft Word, LibreOffice Writer, and Google Docs
  • How to create bibliographies
  • How to use Zotero and access your Zotero library on multiple devices
  • How to collaborate on research projects using Zotero

Note: If you choose Zotero, as I suggest and recommend, you should create a free account (use your personal email to sign up). As you add material to your Zotero collection, you collection will be synced with and backed up to Zotero's servers. Zotero registration:

Zotero Demo

In the next video, I will show you how to complete the above steps so that you may get started using Zotero. Again, you may use an alternate RM, but throughout this course, I will demonstrate Zotero.

Your task this week is to download and start using Zotero, or some alternate RM. Please follow the demo video to complete the process.


  • Reference (or citation) managers (RM) provide more sophisticated tools to manage information sources than simple files systems provide.
  • There is a slew of RM applications available to use, but we want to be sure we pick one that provides as many functions as possible and that is available on as many devices and operating systems as possible and can be integrated with a variety of word processing applications.
  • Although you are welcome to use an alternate RM, in this course we focus on the Zotero RM.

References (created with Zotero)

Gilmour, R., & Cobus-Kuo, L. (2011). Reference Management Software: A Comparative Analysis of Four Products. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, 66(Summer 2011).