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Tools for Adults Returning to College: Reference Managers

Updated on December 13, 2015

It does not matter if you are returning to college after a break or beginning a graduate program, one fact of life in college is true: you are going to spend a lot of time reading scholarly articles. Another truth is that you are going to need a system to keep track of the articles you have read and the notes you have taken. One way to organize your references is to build a bibliography.

There are a number of reference managers available for free or as paid applications that will aid you in this task.




Evernote ( is a free application that can serve as your information hub. You can set-up a notebook to include a list all of your citations and your entire collection of annotated portable document files (pdfs). You can easily share your citations and pdfs and they are available on your desktop, your tablet and Evernote Web. If you add keywords to the descriptions of your pdfs, your documents are easily searchable.


Easy to Use


Allows sharing with classmates and colleagues


You have to add keywords to documents to make them searchable.

You cannot cite while you write.

Google Drive

Like Evernote, Google Drive ( is free application that may be used to manage your references. You can use Google Drive as a repository for your pdfs and sort your documents into separate folders. You can create a listing of all of your citations in Google Documents and format them according to your preferences. You can also create a sortable reference database in Google Spreadsheets.

Like Evernote, you can easily share your citations and pdfs with classmates. Unlike Evernote, Google Documents and Spreadsheets are only accessible when you are connected to the internet.



Easy to Use


The user must manually insert references from Google Spreadsheets into Google Documents


Qippa ( is a free reference organizer that allows you to import all of your pdfs to one location. You can also annotate your references, create mindmaps, inserts citations into documents created with MS Word.



Easy to Use

Integrates easily with MS Word documents


Qippa is not compatible with Mac.


Mendeley ( is a free reference manager and network that allows researchers and students to organize references, share resources with collaborators and classmates and discover the most recent articles in an area of interest.



Easy to Use

Imports Endnote libraries


Limited access to free articles


Zotero ( is another free reference tool that allows the user to organize, collect and share pdfs, images, audio and other files.



Integrates well with MS Word, Open Office and Apple Pages


May have difficulty handling very large databases



Endnotes (; $249.95 download and $299.95 physical) is probably one of the most widely used reference organizers. The latest version (X6) allows users to search hundreds of databases like PubMed and import those citations directly into a searchable and sortable database. Endnote is easily integrated into MS Word and Apple Pages. The “Cite as You Write ®” function allows users to format references while working on a document. Users can also annotate PDFs.



Widely used by researchers



MS Office and Apple Works

MS Word and MS Excel can be used manage your references. You can set-up a list all of your citations in Word or Pages and as a sortable database in Excel or Numbers as you would in Google Drive.


Easy to use

The user does not have to learn how to use new software


Both programs can be costly if they were not included in your computer software package.

Selecting a Reference Manager

For adults returning to school, there are a number of free and paid managers available to help you efficiently organize your references. Ask yourself the following questions before you settle on one:

1. How large are your databases?

2. Which computer system am I using?

3. Do I need to share with others?

4. Do I need to continuously edit references?

5. Can I afford to upgrade every year?


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