We’ve talked before about what a reference management software is. This time I want to explain how it actually works.
Don’t worry, we’re not going to enter into very technical details. After all, you don’t need to know how the engine works to be able to drive a car. But you at least need to know that it runs on petrol and that you need to refuel it every so often…
I wasn’t sure how to explain this as simply as possible, so I decided to do a little drawing.
As you can see, there are two parts to the process. And both parts revolve around the concept of your own “reference database“.
Creating your reference database
First, you need to create this reference database. It means that you’re going to add the reference to all the documents you might want to use later on in one place. They can be journal articles, books, dissertations, webpages, reports, news articles, etc.: anything that you could use in your literature review.
There are usually several ways to add those references. If you have access to all or only some of them will depend on which software you’re using, or which version. But here are the most common ones:
- Doing a search within the software. You’re not using it to do a proper literature search. Instead, if you’ve already found a document and you want to add it to your database, you can search for it using its title and author, its ISBN, DOI, or any other information you have about it.
- Importing references. You can usually import very easily references that you had gathered in another software. You can also directly import references from a bibliographic database. And most software now allow you to add a “capture button” to your Web browser, which enables you to add any reference you might encounter online.
- Writing your references from scratch. This is always an option but you have to be very careful that you don’t make any mistake or typos!
Whichever you’re using, you should always check your references after you’ve added them. Check that all the information imported is correct, that there is no mistake in how the names / title / other bits are written, that the date is the one of publication of the document and not when the page was put online (this happens often!), etc.
Everything must be pristine and perfect!
The reason why is that you’re never going to touch them ever again. But they will be used by your software to create your citations and reference lists.
Citing your references easily
This is the second part of the process. Once your database is complete (at least for the project you’re working on right now…), you can use it to do your referencing.
A first method can be to create a bibliography directly from your software and copy-paste it at the end of your literature review.
But most reference management software go further. You often have the option to install a plug-in that will go directly into your text processor (MS Word, Pages, Open Office, Evernote… it depends on the kind of software you’re using!).
Once the plug-in is there, you can use it to add citations directly within your text. And it will create your reference list at the end automatically! No need to learn the rules of Harvard Style of any referencing style you’re supposed to be using.
And if you need, you can actually change styles in just one click!
Yes, it’s quite magical…
But keep in mind that you have to have done some legwork beforehand by creating your reference database. So if your reference list is going to be fairly small, or if you don’t like having to learn how to use yet another software, it might not be the best method for you. In that case, you can still learn how to cite manually and do it the old fashion way. No harm in that. It’s really up to you!
So, what do you think? Do you feel using a reference management software would help you? Do you already use one? Tell me all about it in the comments!
The banner above was created using a photo by Dominik Bartsch.