As a graduate student, you read broadly in your discipline at the beginning of your career. When you move on to work on your research papers, a master's thesis, or your dissertation, you're reading deeply into your topic. No matter what stage of your graduate career, it pays to set up a Citation Management System (CMS).

There are numerous benefits to using a management system: You keep your notes in one place, your notes are searchable, and you don’t lose track of what you’ve read (especially helpful if returning to an area that you may have worked on years ago). These Management Systems make it easier to find a quote or citation that you are including in your own work. This is vital for maintaining academic integrity.  When you’re writing a paper or a thesis, you might remember an idea from a book or article you used in the past. In order to properly cite where you first learned about the idea, you’ll want to be able to search your notes easily and have all the information for the citation at hand.  By using a citation management system, you can easily trace the origin of your idea and give credit where it’s due. This is vital for maintaining academic integrity.

Another bonus? Management systems help you format your bibliography at the end of a project.  If you’re writing a dissertation and have fifteen pages of sources, getting the formatting just right won’t be a struggle.

There are many citation management systems available for free or for sale. Here are just a few of the freely-available systems:


Because it’s compatible with Encore, UNL’s online catalog, RefWorks may be the only CMS you'll ever need. You can export a source directly from Encore into RefWorks, rather than typing in each field individually. This will save you time and minimize typos! RefWorks is free to UNL students. You may not know whether the next institution you work for will have free access, so consider what you’ll do with your citations (and how you’ll access them) once you graduate.


One of the free citation management systems, Mendeley may be a good choice for you if you’ll be graduating soon or if you also want to manage PDFs. You can import and organize your PDFs, a boon for accessing journals online. Like RefWorks, Mendeley generates citations and bibliographies. Another benefit to using Mendeley is being able to collaborate with other authors or teammates from the same lab. You can create groups that are either public or private and share documents.


Zotero allows you to collect all of your research materials: PDFs, images, audio, and video files. Rather than using folders, Zotero uses searchable tags. You can use one tag across a number of collections and sub-collections. You can use the library’s categories for tagging your own research. Like the resources listed above, Zotero also allows you to format your citations in a number of styles (APA, MLA, and hundreds more). Like Mendeley, you can also collaborate with coworkers or reading groups to share resources and notes.

In addition to these three tools, there are many more out on the market. To find the citation management system that works best for you, try watching online tutorials to see if one system seems more intuitive than another. Also talk to your colleagues. They may prefer one system over another. Using the same system may make collaboration easier.

Remember: start using a citation management system now and you’ll make your work throughout graduate school more efficient. If you’ve been tracking your work consistently, putting together literature reviews, writing a journal article, or preparing for your comprehensive exams is a snap!

For more digital resources that can aid your work in graduate school (with recommendations beyond citation management systems!), see the full article.