TEL Resources: Reference Management

As an academic literacy tutor, I spend a lot of time helping undergraduates to understand why, when, and how to use citation and referencing in their written work.

My department currently insists on its own unique and idiosyncratic variant of Harvard referencing. I’m not sure of its origins; however, it is not supported by any reference management software or tool that I’m aware of. Thankfully, the Department has recently relented, and  from September 2016, any version of Harvard referencing will be acceptable, as long as it is applied consistently.

This policy decision opens up a number of options regarding the tools that my students could use to manage their references. I need to decide how best to incorporate this opportunity into the Year 1 Personal Development module on which I teach. This change also coincides with my own need to find a better way of managing all the citations and references that I am collecting for my Master’s degree coursework. I have therefore decided to experiment with 2 different tools – EndNote and RefMe, to evaluate which is likely to be most useful a) for my incoming undergraduate cohorts and b) for my own postgraduate studies.


I’d heard colleagues speak of EndNote before, but I’d wrongly confused it with EverNote and/or OneNote, neither of which I’ve managed to find much use for. Last week, I drove up to our main campus for an EndNote training session with our IT and Digital Skills Co-ordinator. There is something to be said about the fact that I’ve been in post at a ‘not-main-campus’ for three years and didn’t even know that we had an IT and Digital Skills Co-ordinator, but that’s a discussion for another day. I’ve also been introduced to the Web of Science, which is a whole new world of joy for someone with a reputation for being a bit of a referencing nerd!

The training session was thorough and informative, but now it’s up to me to go away and familiarise myself with what this very powerful bit of software can do. Some initial observations:

  • I really like the facility for annotating PDFs on-screen. Having reached a point where I have several lever-arch files full of research papers, it’s definitely time to move on from my pencil-and-paper approach to critical reading. I haven’t yet found an opportunity to share my annotations with anyone else reading the same paper, but can see potential benefits to collaborative annotation. I suspect that, for my undergraduate, this would be outweighed by the risk of plagiarism, however.
  • Linked to this is the very fast Find Full Text function, which imports both the direct URL and full PDF of the article into the reference list item. This will save a lot of time that I have previously spent on saving and printing PDFs.
  • It’s a shame that there is no app for iPhone; however, EndNote for iPad is quick and almost seamless. I prefer it to the website, for reading purposes.
  • That said, I’m aware that a number of students (including myself) do prefer to separate reading for learning from reading for pleasure. While we may have migrated happily to Kindles and tablets for reading novels, magazines etc. a preference seems to remain for hard copies for study. The impact of digital or traditional reading materials on comprehension and retention is a topic for another post; however, I’m delighted to report that my EndNote Web of Science search has just provided me with 27 research papers on that topic from the past 2 years alone!


  • We do need to think about how we manage on-screen and tech-related distractions. When I was an undergraduate in the early 90s, I had to do all my reading and research from hard copies either in, or borrowed from, a library. 21st Century students need to master an entirely different set of techniques for self-management when using 21st century tools.  A number of anti-distraction apps are available to help with this; I have never used any of these, but it may well be the case that students now need to deal with issues of focus and self-discipline in entirely new ways.


Squirrek screenshot

  • It’s not a particularly intuitive user interface in the first instance. This has had a significant negative impact on the speed at which I’ve been able to read, critique and write for my own coursework this week. I suspect that it will be worth the effort, particularly when it comes to writing my Master’s dissertation. However, I also know that many of our undergraduates, (like me) must balance their studies with complex work and family responsibilities, but (unlike me) without the benefit of several years of higher education and the resulting meta-cognitive and digital skill sets that I’ve developed. I’m not sure they’ve got the luxury of time (or, in many cases, the patience and tenacity) that it takes to master this software in the first instance.
  • There is quite a difference in specification between the desktop (on campus) and online (off-campus) packages. I am still negotiating the intricacies of these, but still find it essential to have frequent access to the desktop version. Many of my students do not live on campus, and it is essential that they can develop seamless access to and navigation of their TEL tools, regardless of whether they study on or off campus. My main wishlist item for this would be the ability to annotate PDFs online or via the app.
  • I’ve also managed to import my libraries from previous flirtations with Zotero and Mendeley. I really liked both of those packages and only I stopped using them because our library has been promising us Talis Aspire, and they’re not compatible.
  • Access to the software (both desktop and online) relies on institutional credentials and privileges. My EndNote account is linked to my employer, and I can therefore use it to access anything to which they subscribe. This leaves me with 2 questions that I need to raise with my trainer once I’ve become more confident with the basic operations:
  1. What would happen to my reference library were I to leave this job? (Reimport to Zotero or Mendeley, or buy my own desktop version – but would ability to use it still depend on a specific set of academic login credentials?)
  2. How can I link my student credentials from the University at which I study to the same account? Similarly – would a student or employee who transferred universities be able to easily transfer their reference library?

In conclusion, EndNote appears to be an impressive and very powerful piece of software. I suspect that it is probably better suited to postgraduate students and professional researchers, than to new undergraduates. It would therefore be useful to find an alternative better suited to beginners, that they can transfer successfully to EndNote at an appropriate stage in their academic careers.


I’ve been dabbling with RefMe for a while now, although not in any systematic way. This system has lots to recommend it to referencing novices. For example:

  • It’s free, cloud-based and not linked to institutional privilege (i.e. highly transferable).
  • There is a very handy free mobile app
  • It supports a number of popular referencing systems, widely used in UK universities
  • The user interface is incredibly intuitive
  • Collaboration is possible – you can share your library with anyone, as long as you have their email address

Some other very useful features in more detail:

  • My favourite feature is using your mobile’s camera to scan a book’s barcode. This instantly pulls the reference into your reference library not only on your device, but directly into your web account too. It’s also very easy to search by ISBN number or DOI to instantly create a reference list item.
  • The capturing of article metadata from internet sources is superb and, on initial testing, appears more straightforward and complete than EndNote’s ‘Capture Reference’ facility.
  • I’m also very happy with the ability to set up different reference lists, known as ‘Projects’ for different purposes. This feature would work well for undergraduates (or even this postgraduate!) trying to manage small reference lists across different assignments or modules. Again, copying a reference list item from one project into another is very intuitive and easy, with instant updates on all connected devices.

refme screenshot

  • Exporting references from RefMe to EndNote is easy, although I suspect some extra leg work would be needed to pull in PDFs for annotation etc.
  • Exporting a reference list into Word is also very easy, although I haven’t yet worked out how to manage in-text citations.
  • Unlike EndNote, there is no facility to search, store, access or annotate articles online. It really is citation/list item management only. While this is a limitation, I think that for undergraduates working with approximately 30 reference list items per 3,000 word assignment, this should be sufficient in the first instance.

Further concerns

This post represents a brief and cursory overview of these two very different tools, and I still have lots of questions and exploration ahead of me. Some key areas to explore include:

  • Becoming fully operational with EndNote from a remote location. It works beautifully at my on-campus desktop, but I’m still finding remote working to be challenging. The problems seem to be linked to a) my current inability to remotely access my on-campus desktop and b) the current ability of my home PC to work with .RIS files.
  • Operating the desktop version from different on-campus PCs. I have the luxury of a staff desk and PC, but my students do not.
  • Working with each tool in MS Word, including in-text citations and reference lists, and other writing tools.


It seems to me that a useful undergraduate pathway might be to master RefMe first, with a view to exporting reference libraries to EndNote once citation and referencing skills are secure. This also means that I can transfer support for my students to the appropriate Skills Co-ordinator, rather than having to do it all myself. I don’t mind providing help and information on some of the digital and academic literacy skills required for referencing, but I don’t have the capacity to act as an ICT helpdesk!

From a personal point of view, I’ve slightly resented the time that I’ve had to spend on setting up and learning EndNote, although I’m confident that I will change my view in due course. In the meantime, it’s possible that I’ll continue to use the mobile version of RefMe for ‘on the go’ harvesting of potential reading material, and switch between the 2 services as my own skills develop.



One thought on “TEL Resources: Reference Management

  1. This is really interesting. We don’t currently have a single approved tool at Greenwich although Mendeley is used often and suggested by tutors in education. I don’t know if you are aware of the tools for referencing which are built into MS Word? There are some reasonable tools for maintaining references, inserting citations and generating a bibliography which is formatted in a given style such as Harvard. In the past that’s what I have used. I think there is a real advantage to the ability to annotate pdfs within Endnote though.


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