Citation managers: What do they do, are they easy to use, and how do you choose one?

December 16, 2021 By Cal Fielding, ISIP Student Intern

An undergraduate perspective on citation managers

College represents an amazing opportunity for learning and growth. It also comes with stress, papers, projects, and seemingly endless homework. Why not take some of the work off your own back and use the tools created by someone who was once in your situation? Who, like you, would probably have rather been doing anything but figuring out how citation formats work.

As college students, I am sure we all know about citation generators like Easybib, but do we all know what a citation manager is, or all that they can offer? Citation managers are software tools that have the ability to generate a multitude of citation types, including in-text citations. They also can help you organize your cited sources, export source lists, share folders with project partners, help with formatting, and offer quick options to organize and store sources in folders in real time as you find them. Overall, citation managers such as EndNote Basic (which I have personally used) take the weight of source maintenance down a notch so you can focus on your papers, projects, and research. 

Barriers that I’ve come across 

Despite the many long-term benefits, getting into using citation managers can be a bit tricky. Often students are only looking to quickly generate a citation or store a source, and many managers can have a learning curve for use. With all the options, and sometimes confusing page layouts, you can see why students would stick to the easier, but less stable, tactic of generating sources and hoping not to lose them. 

Mitigating these barriers

Just as there are many barriers to getting into using a citation manager, there are many ways to mitigate and get around these barriers. Help guides, sometimes found in the citation manager itself, can be a way to get specific help and information on how a citation manager works once you’ve chosen one and created an account. Meeting with a librarian is another way to get info on what a citation manager is and how it works. Librarians can help you choose one and work with you to learn about a specific citation manager. 

Getting started with a citation manager

Now you’re ready to choose a citation manager! You could do this by looking up “citation managers” and trudging through the endless list of google results, however that would present the same issues as learning to use one, too many options. Luckily, librarians have already done the work for you. On the UW-Madison Libraries citation managers page, you can find an overview and comparative look at three different citation managers with varying uses and capabilities — most of which are free to get started — as well as help guides. And you can always Ask a Librarian for additional help.