An introduction to reference management

RhiannonCopy-editing, Project management, Software

Academic and scientific documents, and some business documents too, use references to allow their readers to follow up on ideas and facts discussed in the document. Ensuring that all the references are in the correct order, contain all the required information, and are cited in the correct places is a major task in editing.

Editing references the traditional way involves cross-checking citations against the bibliography and manually editing each citation and each reference in the bibliography. The format of each reference needs to match the appropriate reference style, which determines, for example, whether or not journal titles should be in italic or volume numbers in bold.

You can also create and edit references using reference management software.

Reference management applications are designed to record and manage bibliographic references and their text citations. References are stored in a database which is held either online or on your own computer. Most reference management software can also integrate with word processors such as Microsoft Word, enabling you to link your document to the reference database.

Some features of Zotero, a reference management application

When you cite the references in your document, the software creates a link from the citation to the entry in its database. The software can also generate a bibliography, reading the details from the database and formatting them in the style of your choice.

This has several advantages:

  • You can easily import references from web pages or other reference lists, and automatically search for missing data for your references (e.g. missing author names or missing volume number).
  • You can add annotations to the references, or store the PDF of the document alongside the reference.
  • The format of the citations and references is absolutely consistent. For example, it will never accidentally miss out a comma between an author’s first and last name.
  • The software generates the bibliography from the citations in the text. Therefore, there will be no citations in the text to references that are not in the bibliography.
  • If you make a change to the reference, for example correcting the spelling of the first author, it is changed in every citation throughout the document.
  • If you have to change the citation format, for example changing from numbered citations to author–year citations, or the display format of the bibliography, you can easily do this with a couple of clicks. The entire document will update automatically.

In addition, many reference managers connect to online databases and allow you to share your reference collection with colleagues and co-authors.

What applications are available?

There are a large number of reference manager applications available. The three most commonly used by academics and scholars are EndNote, Mendeley and Zotero. They have similar features.

All of these are available on Windows and macOS (although Mendeley hasn’t yet been updated to work on the latest version of macOS). All have plugins which allow them to integrate with Microsoft Word so that you can insert citations directly into your document.

Here’s a comparison of reference manager applications:

ApplicationCostOperating
systems
Online storage
space
Can you share
references
in groups?
Does it integrate
with Word?
Can it capture
a web page
to create a record?
EndNote BasicFreeWeb browser
only
2GBYesYesNo
EndNote$249.95Windows
macOS
iOS
UnlimitedYesYesNo
MendeleyFreeWindows
macOS (up to
10.11)
iOS
Android
2GB free;
charge for
more space
YesYesYes
ZoteroFreeWindows
macOS
Linux
300MB free;
charge for
more space
YesYesYes

How can Prepress Projects help me?

When we edit your documents, we will, as a matter of course, check and edit the references, whether or not they are in a reference management tool.

We have developed in-house tools that can check the order of reference citations in numbered (Vancouver) styles, and check reference details against Crossref and PubMed databases to correct minor errors (e.g. in the spelling of an author’s name) or fill in missing information. Our editors manually check any corrections that these tools have made.

Our usual mode of operation is to work on manual references. However, if you give us access to the database the references are stored in, we can edit documents created with reference management applications, correcting and updating references in the reference manager. We can spot and correct problems caused by editing or updating the references outside the reference manager application and link in references that have been added manually.

We can create citation styles in Citation Style Language, an XML-based format which can be used by both Zotero and Mendeley. We can also create EndNote output styles. These styles can then be loaded by users of the applications to format reference citations and bibliographies to your exact house style.

We can also manage online reference databases, ensuring that all references are recorded consistently (for example, that a document code number is always recorded in the same field) and removing duplicates. For one of our clients we curate a massive shared reference database in Zotero, used by over a hundred authors and containing over 15,000 references.