Zotero and Mendeley – free and easy reference software

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Every year I meet too many students that struggle needlessly with their bibliography when trying to write their essays. So, as the new term is about to start I thought I quickly review some really useful (and free!) applications for citation/reference/bibliography management.

Basically, if you want to have a free software that does all the pesky referencing for you, you have the choice between two different applications: Zotero and Mendeley. Both are slightly different in focus, and (crucially) in ownership: i.e. Zotero is an open-source software, while Mendeley is owned by Elsevier (which had some pretty major run ins with academics).  But let’s do them step by step:


Zotero is the “original” free and open-source reference manager. It used to be integrated with Firefox only, but now can be used as stand alone, as well as with other browsers.
The software is pretty fully featured when it comes to inserting your references into a MS Word file (or LibreOffice/OpenOffice), and has many editing and style options – as you would expect.
Getting references into Zotero can be done directly from Google Scholar, via RIS files (downloadable from Scholar or some journal websites/databases), or Zotero can look up bibliographic details based on DOI, ISBN etc numbers.
Zotero can store PDFs associated with the references, although you would probably run out of storage pretty quickly on the free product.

Some good getting started guides for Zotero can be found here from Zotero.org itself, or here from Princetown, or alternatively a guide including handouts from Georgia State.


Mendeley performs pretty much the same functions in terms of bibliography management as Zotero, although it feels more like a paper organising software with references functionality attached to me, but that impression may be personal.
Mendeley has the advantage that you can sync your PDFs to your iPad (it has a free app) and you can then annotate the PDFs (very basic, but functional) on the move.
Similar to Zotero, the free version has limited space, and using too many PDFs is likely to push you over the limit quickly.
Check out the Mendeley website for a getting started guide.

Between the two, Iif you intend to use the software mostly for organising your references, then I find Zotero easier to use. If you want to have additional functionality like annotating PDFs, and don’t want to invest in a more fully featured PDF annotating software, I’d suggest Mendeley.

Finally, there is also a third software available: Docear. Sadly, it doesn’t work with MS Word on the Mac – so it is (for the time being) sadly pretty useless to me. But if you have any experience with it, it would be interesting to know about. The features look very cool (especially mindmapping of references!) – and it is open source, too!


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