In the world of research, managing references is a notoriously cumbersome task. You do not want to be bogged down with tracking your references and citations when you would rather synthesize brilliant insights. However, citations are a crucial piece of the puzzle, and the world of scholarship and its institutions define specific requirements for how they should be included in your work.
Researchers once managed entire research processes, including citations, manually – nothing short of mental acrobatics for hours on end. Contemporary researchers benefit from an explosion in technology-assisted research tools that automates the tedious work of reference management, leaving more time to focus on developing the actual ideas themselves.
Advancements in sophisticated “research assistants” have been lifeboats for researchers of all backgrounds, but with so many to choose from – it can be difficult to decide which is the best reference manager for you. Here, we tackle this question and give you our recommendation for the best reference manager in the market.
Here are some key principles that any choice reference manager should excel at:
- Strong metadata extraction capabilities. This is a core functionality of any good reference manager. The better it works, the more seamless the process organizing your research will be. Good reference managers use AI and other machine learning algorithms to analyze papers and retrieve relevant information intelligently. Some algorithms go a step further and categorize that information in a way that allows for efficient usability with import and export features.
- Device-agnostic single source of truth. Research in the modern era is seldom restricted to one place, device, or person. Thus, the best reference managers work across different devices keeping knowledge focused and consistent across collaborators. An ideal reference manager includes robust metadata extraction in a cloud-native interface allowing for easy collaboration and organization.
- Powerful Search. A good reference manager will include an intuitive and nuanced full-text and metadata search function that allows for thought-provoking discovery within your reference base, as well as helping you to find specific pieces of text as and when needed. Such a search should be both in-document and across entire projects of documents.
- Wide-Ranging Citation Support. There are more than 9000 citation styles and more coming along. You would want a reference manager that keeps up and updates itself to support diverse citation styles. That way, you will always be able to reformat your work with ease and meet any specific requirements
- Browser Extension. There is no “research” without “search”, and the majority of searching is done online. Clipping material and importing documents directly from your browser right to your reference manager saves much time. A well-designed extension can do this and help to remove even more inertia between the discovery and usage of a fresh idea that can be quickly forgotten.
- Intuitive Interface. None of the above matters if the tool is not easy to navigate, learn, and use to the tool’s full potential. You want to pick a tool that stays out of your way as much as possible, so you can focus on your research. Therefore, try to go with something that has a modern, minimalistic design while still providing the full feature set that you would expect.
Those are just some of the things that should compel your attention. Now, let us see how the major reference managers stack up according to those principles.
There is a detailed comparison of features, but let us walk through a few tools that deserve honorable mentions:
Mendeley has built a loyal following in the years that it has been active. It has strong metadata capabilities and supports over 9,000 different citation styles. Its strong track record and integrations with publisher databases are offset by its relatively weak filter and search functionality, as well as its reliance on the desktop app. In addition, references are organized in a strictly hierarchical fashion which does not suit every project. Lastly, the price is prohibitive for many researchers.
Zotero is a free reference manager with similar features to Mendeley. It supports fewer file types and lacks some critical features such as PDF annotation and in-app file preview. However, it compensates for poor in-app usability with a free price tag and affordable add-on memory tiers coupled with a well-rated browser extension. Zotero remains an adequate option if you want something affordable with some basic organizational capabilities, but do not need to read or annotate your references.
EndNote offers similar features backed by a robust library system – the world’s oldest catalog of research. Although expensive, they charge one-off fees rather than subscriptions; $100 for students and $250 for faculty. The interface contains many useful features for research scientists, but Endnote lacks thorough integration with Google Docs and still relies on hierarchical folders with little flexibility.
Petal is a free web-based reference manager setting out to change the game. The team, most members actively engaged in research, worked hard to ensure that the tool is packed with a comprehensive yet sophisticated feature set while remaining user-friendly and well-integrated into research workflows. Petal supports full-text search as well as metadata search, and everything is synced to the cloud – giving users access wherever they are.
Make research more efficient. Petal is a reference manager that seamlessly delivers unparalleled value for researchers and one that will revolutionize reference management. Google Search has become ubiquitous for defining terms and checking weather; Petal offers users the freedom to derive insights from research texts. Best of all, it is completely free to use. There are no downloads required and you can get straight to work in seconds. Sign up for free today, and learn why Petal.org is the best reference manager on the market.