Tip of the week: Making citations easier

Tip of the Week (TOTW): Whether you are already in your graduate program, or organizing information to get into that top program, the ‘Tip of the Week’ is designed to help make you work more efficiently.

This week: Citation Management Software.

Wait, where are you going?

I know – this sound’s incredibly boring … software that can help you manage your citations and references? But hang in there. I guarantee that once you start working with this software you’ll be wondering how you lived without it. I mean, have you ever been writing a paper, moving smoothly along and then had to look for a citation? It slooooows you down, no?


Listen, what if I told you that you never have to type in a reference in APA (or whatever arcane citation style) again? Instead, you just drag that pdf of the journal article you are reading into a program – then that program magically extracts the citation information, AND (here is the kicker), when you are writing a paper and you are ready to cite that article, you just click a button, and voilà – citation information and bibliographic reference inserted into your document – in the style that you choose.

OK – so maybe this is a bit on the boring side, but seriously, it is a huge time-saver, and the earlier you get started on this the better. Specifically, you should start organizing your pdf articles into one place. First, I’d suggest putting all of your pdfs into one folder – and if you use dropbox, google drive, or sugarsync or whatever, put it in a folder in there (more on this in a later post). Even if you have two (or many) distinct areas of research, place all of your files in one place. You can organize them later

What I use: Mendeley


Mendeley is the program that organizes all of these pdfs AND any citations that you come across (even if you can’t get the actual article or chapter). There are several of these programs out there. I’ve tried zotero.org and Endnote, but have settled on Mendeley for a few reasons:
1) The interface is easy to navigate
2) It is free for up to 2GB (which is a ton of pdfs – especially more recent pdfs)
3) It is cross-platform – so all of my students in my lab running iOS can use it
To get started, just go to mendeley.com and sign up for a free account. In my opinion it makes the most sense to download the desktop software – not just the web account – as the desktop software is a lot easier to navigate. Then, go to that folder you created and start dragging your pdfs into the desktop software. Mendeley will then extract the citation information from each pdf. For some older pdfs it may not recognize all of the meta-data (the information about the citation), but you can enter that in if need be.

From here I recommend reading all you can about Mendeley and including tutorials.

Then, if you use Word, you can install a simple plug-in to start citing your articles.
There is also ‘save to Mendeley’ web clipper that can find citations on the webpage you are browsing (say for example if you are searching pubmed) … so you don’t even need the pdf for the citation/reference. Over time you can build an impressive collection of articles, abstracts and citations. If you are doing research in very different areas, no problem. Just create folders (and subfolders) within Mendeley’s desktop program for that specific type of research. I recommend keeping all of your pdfs in one folder on your desktop (it can be difficult finding a pdf if they are all over the place) – but Mendeley can keep things separate for you on its end.

Most important – No more typing in citations or references … or worse, learning the detailed citation/reference settings for a specific journal – only to forget it after you’ve submitted a paper. Less work – more time to do enjoyable things!

There are a few downsides to Mendeley– the backup process is not exactly straightforward, and sometimes the software is buggy. But my biggest problem is that it limits the number of people who can share a folder of pdfs. I’d love to have my entire lab on one large database of readings, but that is not currently an option. But, other than that, I really can’t believe I used to type in references and citations by hand.

Photos by Martin Fisch and AJ Cann

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