Using Free Citation Managers for Academic Writing

Steve McGuire

Reference citation software, for those unfamiliar with it, enables users to easily keep track of reference information for books, journals, dissertations, and many other types of material. Abstracts, personal notes, and PDF files can all be kept together in a way that is searchable by text and keyword. Then, while writing, these citations can be easily inserted into a document and transferred automatically into a reference list in a wide variety of styles, such as APA, MLA, or CMS. Having a searchable database of references is useful in and of itself, but the ability to create a reference list is helpful even for shorter articles. It is even more valuable for longer publications such as dissertations, where there might be hundreds of citations. Citation software also allows reference information to be downloaded with a single click from a variety of sources including libraries, Google Scholar, or even Amazon. Finally, related digital files such as images and PDFs can be appended to each entry in the reference library. In this short article, I will briefly discuss how to choose a citation manager, get one up and running, add citations to an article, create a reference list, and use this software in conjunction with a word processor. After reading this article, I hope you will see that the benefits exceed the perceived difficulties in acquiring, installing, and learning to use a citation manager.

Choosing a Citation Manager

The two full-featured free citation software packages, Zotero and Mendeley, offer almost exactly the same options, work with most browsers and word processors, and provide easy ways to add new entries from websites or databases. Both will meet the needs of most users. See Table 1 below for a feature comparison. Both applications work with Microsoft Word and Open Office, the free open-source word processor. If you use one of these, then either citation manager will do. If you use another word processor, such as LibreOffice, Google Docs, or LaTex, then you’ll have a decision to make. Only Zotero works with LibreOffice and Google Docs, while Mendeley works with LaTex. Both offer the most common citation formats and allow users to create their own. Mendeley provides 1GB of personal storage compared to 300MB for Zotero. Both allow importing from a variety of databases. Zotero seems to have more import options with a single click than Mendeley, which requires that files be exported from the source and then imported in a standard format. Both offer desktop applications, Apple and Android apps, and browser plugins to add citations to an online personal library.

Table 1. Comparison of Zotero and Mendeley citation software





Online and off, Zotero Connector plug-in for browsers

Online and off, Web Importer plugin for browsers

Must be online

Requires desktop application be running to import citations into a word processor.

Requires desktop application be running to import citations into a word processor.

Smartphone Application

An updated list for Apple and Android at lists mobile apps, including those that allow for importing books directly into Zotero; Recommended app: BibUp

Available for both, but Mendeley recommends they be used in conjunction with desktop app.


Free for basic, more available

Free for basic, more available


Unlimited local (desktop), 300MB free online. Upgrades: 2 GB for $20/year; 6GB for $60/year; and unlimited for $120/year. Zotero groups share the group owner’s storage.

Unlimited local (desktop), 1 GB personal and 2 GB shared online. Upgrades: 5GB for $4.99/mo.; 10GB for $9.99/mo.; and unlimited for $14.99/mo. Special rate for year-long plans.


Microsoft Word, Open Office, LibreOffice, Google Docs

Microsoft Word, Open Office, LaTex

Import from webpages

Amazon books, Google Scholar, web pages

Yes, with bookmarks for a limited number of sites

Attach PDFs


Yes, can also highlight PDFs

Search PDFs




Sync with multiple computers

Sync with multiple computers and Zotero (output from Zotero then import into Mendeley—live synching not available)

Software and other Support offers text support in English, Japanese, and other languages. Videos available at, especially Zotero Tutorial, especially View All Videos, Getting Started

Getting Started with a Citation Manager

As with many new approaches, the first steps to using a citation manager can seem daunting. However, getting one up and running is a straightforward process. Inputting and importing your current references can take time, but once completed, both citation managers allow easy collection and maintenance of references. Connecting your citation library with your word processor also requires a few clear steps. If you have trouble, there are numerous tutorial videos available on YouTube. Websites for both applications also provide links to user forums where guidance can be found. Once you’ve completed the set up, the software will help you focus more on your writing and less on keeping track of citations. In other words, by investing a bit of your time and effort up front, you’ll end up saving a lot of hassle over time.

What You Need

The requirements are similar no matter your context. Choose the citation manager that offers a plugin for your word processor of choice. For example, to use Zotero with Google Docs, you will need a free Google account, a free Zotero account, and the Zotero Connector plugin. A Google account can be created by following the prompts at A free Zotero account can be created at Click on Register and then follow the prompts. The step-by-step guides and videos listed in Table 1 under Software and Other Support are very clear and useful.

Importing Current and New References

Both Zotero and Mendeley let you drag and drop your PDFs and other files into your library. The software pulls whatever reference information it can from each document’s metadata. However, both services recommend adding citations directly from the source and then attaching a PDF, especially if you have a file you have annotated or highlighted. Both also allow automatic input of references using DOIs.

To save online items, you will need to have a plugin installed on your browser. This can be done from within either desktop application. Zotero makes this step especially easy: If you click on My Library on the online home page, a download link on the upper right leads to a page that provides a link to automatically add the Zotero Connector plug-in to your browser. For those not using the Chrome, Firefox, or Safari browsers, Zotero offers a “bookmarklet,” which is a kind of script that emulates what plugins do. The direct link to the bookmarklet instruction page is Again, you will only need this if you use a browser other than Chrome, Firefox, or Safari.

Once you have the Zotero Connector plug-in installed in your Chrome browser, a small icon will appear at the top right of the screen. Zotero will scan the page you are viewing and provide feedback on whether you can choose selected references from the list or the entire page into your Zotero library.

Using Zotero with Google Docs

Using Zotero with Google Docs or another word processor is very simple. Once the Zotero Connector plug-in is installed, a Zotero tab will appear at the top of the Google Docs page (or in your word processor menu). To insert a citation, you click where you would like to insert it, and a window appears in which you type in words to identify the reference you would like to cite. For example, if I type Nation Webb, the two relevant items currently in my library appear, and I can choose to insert them as Nation & Webb, 2011 or Webb & Nation, 2008. Note that I can format the citation to include just the year and can add specific pages, prefixes, and postfixes: Tarone & Swierzbin (e.g., 2009, pp. 2735). Your reference list can be updated as references are added or deleted. Please note that the output is not always perfect. This means you should still proofread and edit your reference list as usual. The final document can be formatted appropriately for the journal you are submitting a manuscript to.

Where to Go from Here

As you can see, there are a number of steps required to get a personal database up and running with either Zotero or Mendeley. There is a learning curve that will require a bit of effort, time, and patience on your part. However, these investments will pay dividends over time, allowing you to focus more attention on your research and writing. I hope this short article has helped you think about your academic writing workflow and shown you how beneficial a citation manager can be.


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