Productivity,  Writing

Finding your perfect citation manager

Identifying the best citation management system for your needs is key to maintaining an organized and accessible list of references. Setting up this system early in your studies will provide a great relief when it comes to writing your thesis, drafting a manuscript, or contributing to a review article.

Currently, there are three popular citation managers: EndNote, Mendeley, and Zotero. While you can export citations between managers, it may be easiest to choose which manager will best suit your work and stick with it. The descriptions of each manager below will help you choose. Three topics to keep in mind:

Collaboration: If you will be collaborating with another colleague or lab, what manager do they use?
Cost: Does your institution have a license for Endnote? Do you prefer a free software?
Access: Will you need or want to access your stored references after leaving the university (i.e. open source/using a personal email for sign-up)?

All programs have the following features:

  • recognize common bibliography styles
  • detect duplicates
  • sync selective documents
  • capability to work offline (through the desktop version)
  • pull metadata from DOI in articles to autocomplete citation
  • store and cite images
  • add file attachments
  • search full-text in PDFs
  • compatibility with Windows and Mac OS
Cost$115 student pricing

30 day free trial

Open source (keep account regardless of university affiliation)
Access/FormatDesktop download, sync onlineDesktop download and web-basedDesktop download and web-based
Storage spaceUnlimited in X92GB free backup online; can purchase additional

Note: Using the desktop platform results in unlimited storage, since you’re saving files your computer. However, it won’t backup online once you surpass 2GB
300MB free backup online; can purchase additional

Note: Using the desktop platform results in unlimited storage, since you’re saving files your computer. However, it won’t backup online once you surpass 300MB
Collaboration?Yes; track teammate’s changes and activity; provide read or write access to libraryYes; annotate documents across collaborators Yes; no cost for adding collaborators
PDF AnnotationYesYesLacks built-in PDF reader, but works in conjunction with Preview on Mac
Import citations into word managersYes; MS Word, Libre Office, Google Docs, LaTeX through BibTeX and Open OfficeYes; MS Word, Libre Office, Neo Office, Open Office, LaTeX through BibTeX (Note: lacks Google Docs)Yes; MS Word, LibreOffice, Google Docs, Neo Office LaTeX through BibTeX
Edit or create citation stylesYesYes, Mendeley CSLYes, Citation Style Editor
Ease of useDesktop version is more difficult to learnModerately easyEasy
Direct import from webYes, browser extension Yes, browser extensionYes, recognizes potentially sources; browser extension
Add notesYes, in “notes” fieldYes, in “notes” tab on desktop versionYes, notes can stand alone, with a reference, or with the article attachment
Attachment limitsno limitNo limit on attachments per citation; attachment file size limited to 250MBno limit

With technological advances, the three programs have become more competitive and now are distinguished by small details. There is a lot of praise for Endnote, but on the other hand, there is also discouragement due to the price and some initial difficulty with the interface. It seems choosing between Mendeley or Zotero comes down to personal preference. Two concerns causing Mendeley users to switch are subpar customer service and data encryption interfering with user access (version 1.19), though I can’t personally speak to these. I use Zotero; it’s a breeze to add a new journal article (with auto-fill citations) and to link my citations in MS Word.

Below are links to each software as well as their guidebooks.

Guide book:

Guide book:

Guide book:

Once you choose your citation manager, read about best practices for staying organized and creating summaries of your compiled literature.

Sources: Endnote, Mendeley, Zotero, University of Chicago Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, University of Minnesota Libraries, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Libraries, University of Michigan Mendeley Basics, UPenn Libraries, Temple University Libraries, Duke University Libraries,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *