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An introduction to citation tools

An Introduction to citation tools

Site: Postgraduate online research training
Course: Module 2: Planning the research
Book: An introduction to citation tools
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Saturday, 26 May 2018, 5:01 AM

1. Introduction - how do we cite?

This tutorial is not about citation but a word on it is nevertheless required. Historians follow many different styles but it is generally ‘footnote’ or ‘endnote’ based. In either case the citations take the following forms:

  • A bibliography that lists works or sources consulted in the course of preparation of a piece of research
  • A means of indicating when, in a specific portion of text, argument depends upon a particular work, be it primary or secondary (i.e. footnotes or endnotes)

There is an enormous amount of possible variety in the character of these two elements but, at least in modern scholarship, they will always both be present.

The purpose of these notes is to act as an apparatus to point the reader to further or explanatory information regarding a statement, quotation or argument in the text and as a means to cite the source of that information.

Building these citations into a piece of research can be time consuming and annoying but are vitally important to the scholarship of your work. As such various tools have been developed aimed at automating part of the process and as a means to organising and structuring files in a way that can be considered ‘standardised’. 

Reference managers or citation managers are software packages designed to easily save bibliographic references (including primary sources) into a searchable database and generate them as required into formatted footnotes/endnotes and bibliographies. Among other functions, they can normally import references from online catalogues, and integrate with word processors (such as Microsoft Word or Open Office) to facilitate the insertion of footnotes as you write.

1.1 The Benefits

A reference manager will save you a great deal of time organising your sources.

  1. It’s easy to save references from online sources. Often you can do this with a single click.
  2. It makes it far easier to organise your references, and keep track of what you’ve already read.
  3. It separates data from presentation. So it does all the hard work of converting references into different publication styles (eg, when rewriting part of your dissertation for an article). and it ensures that references in your work are consistently presented.

Moreover, reference managers offer some or all of a range of further functions that can turn them into powerful tools for managing the entire research life-cycle, from collecting sources to data analysis to publishing and sharing, including:

  • Annotations and attachments: you can take notes or even full transcriptions in the software itself, and attach (or link to) copies of the original text if it’s available in electronic form.
  • Organisation and linking: categories, tags or other means of organising references.
  • Cloud features, enabling online backup/storage and syncing across different devices.
  • Collaboration facilities for working on projects with other researchers.
  • Bulk import and export in standard formats.


1.2 The drawbacks

Not everyone is convinced that citation managers are the best option. There are still plenty of historians who type in each footnote/endnote manually and create their bibliographies in a similar manner. There are no rights or wrongs on this and so it is usually best to give citation managers a try and decide what works best for you.

Some of the downsides of using citation managers are:

  • To add entries tend to slow down the writing process. If you are mid-flow with an argument you may not wish to spend time adding a reference in this manner. A quick ‘stand-in’ footnote might suffice.
  • Connectivity with Text editors such as Microsoft Word has improved greatly over the years but this varies depending on the tool you decide to use.
  • Each tool will come with a set of standard ‘styles’, however these do not always conform to the style that you wish to use (or are obliged to use). It is generally possible to create your own bespoke style for each tool but it varies to how easy this is to achieve. Most historians find that they have to check through their citations to make minor changes (admittedly this is little different to what you have to do if you type the citations in manually).
  • Some tools cost money plus there is no guarantee that the company who produces the tool will continue to exist or develop the tool. At the very least the tool will be updated incrementally and may change functionality at a moments notice.


2. Citation Tools

There are various citation tools on the market each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Probably the leaders for historians at the moment are EndNote and Zotero, although some do prefer others such as Mendeley, Papers, and RefWorks. Apple users can also choose Bibdesk. Links to these tools can be found in the further reading list at the end of this book.

In this section we look at just two of these tools – EndNote and Zotero. 

2.1 Endnote

This is the market leader, and the most widely used and recognised citation and research software. It costs around several hundred pounds on a commercial basis and about a little under £100 with an educational discount. Is it worth it?

Some say yes, others no. EndNote has some important strengths. It has got good online searching capabilities which help you to find sources and link to them. It integrates seamlessly with Microsoft Word, and it is also widely known and therefore unlikely to just disappear. EndNote is software based so it is not reliant on web browsers, which acts as both a strength and a weakness. It will work equally well online and offline.

The downside of EndNote is its inability to cite websites very well (which is increasingly becoming important in some fields of historical enquiry). It is also not very good at creating split bibliographies (by which is meant breaking down a bibliography by primary source, journals, monographs etc.).

2.2 Zotero

This tool has been developed by historians, for historians and is fast rivalling EndNote as the tool of choice. It has the benefit of being free unlike EndNote. Its benefits include excellent handling of bibliographies (especially on the Web) and the ability to save web pages as a snapshot, to add notes, and tags.

Limitations include having less citation styles than EndNote (although that is slowly changing) and 

Zotero is generally a plug-in for Web Browsers and text editors but you can download a copy onto your desktop as well if you prefer. Either way there is an offline component to Zotero so although it works best online, it can be used offline as well.

Initially Zotero was a plugin for Firefox only, but that is no longer a limitation.

3. Further Reading


Zotero (free)

Mendeley (free)

RefWorks (££)


Endnote (Windows/Mac; ££)

Papers (Mac/Windows; ££)

BibDesk (Mac only; free)


Comparisons and discussions:

Guides and Tutorials