If you’re a student, chances are you’ve had to write an essay at some point in your academic career, or you have to write one soon (or you were supposed to write one and never finished it). And if you’ve had to write an essay, you know that citations can be the most frustrating part. Everyone has had that awful, punitive professor, who sharpens their red pen, (Yeah, sharpens their pen! They’re just that evil!) And marks you down, or worse, accuses you of plagiarism, for making mistakes like italicizing the issue number of a journal article in APA. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s bad teaching, but professors don’t listen to me. I’m here to tell you the good news about citation managers. However, not all of them are created equal, and you need to know what they can’t do.
What is a citation manager?
Citation managers are software programs that automatically keep track of your sources and format your citations perfectly, regardless of which citation style you need to use. They typically coordinate three important tools: browser plugins, word processor plugins, and standalone programs. The way it works is, you use the browser plugin to save sources as you find them. The plugin automatically scrapes the data from the page of a journal article, a library book’s information page, a newspaper article, and so on, and syncs that data with the program. In the program, you can add notes, delete duplicates, annotate PDF’s, and correct any incorrect metadata. Then, you use the word processor plugin as you write to insert a perfectly formatted citation and to generate the bibliography.
What citation managers can I use for free?
There are lots of options for citation managers. The three I’d recommend to most students are Zotero, Endnote, or Mendeley in that order.
Zotero is currently the best option available, and it’s free and open-source. There’s a big community of customized add-ins and mods for it, ensuring that just about no matter what you do, you can customize Zotero.
Endnote is another popular option for students, and it’s user-friendly and well-documented. However, it’s expensive unless your school pays for it. Many schools do provide it, however, and Endnote offers a discount to most students. Endnote has invested a lot in training librarians and educators, so chances are, there’s somebody at your school or institution who can help you figure it out.
Mendesley used to be a great option, but since they rolled out the “Reference Manager for Desktop,” it’s not as good as it used to be. There have also been some issues about its privacy and file use policies. However, it does work with Elsevier, so if you’re struggling to write for science, psychology, or similar fields, Mendeley might still be a good option for you. It still has some good features, though, especially for people who do team-based research. Maybe it’ll improve again.
Citation managers aren’t magic, though.
If you’re writing an essay, using a citation manager will make your life lots easier. However, you need to know what they can’t do, too. Unfortunately, citation managers can’t pick sources for you. They can’t evaluate a source’s quality (though I’d be surprised if AI didn’t get on this soon), and they can’t identify a source’s argument. They can’t help you build a unique argument. They can’t make sure your direct quotes are bounded by quote marks (which can set off a plagiarism checker), and they can’t ensure that your citations are next to the correct information in your document. Basically, they are great at the mechanical stuff professors and teachers just love to mark you down for, but they can’t help with the human brain stuff. For that, you need people. For more essay writing tips and help, reach out to Unemployed Professors.
This is just my first tip out of 10 for this blog series. Tune in next time when we talk about “KISS.” Nope, I’m not talking about trading naughty actions for writing…it’s an acronym! But to learn more, you’ll have to read the next blog.
Some of these tips were adapted from Deleuzienne’s 2020 book Paper Hacking 101.