An Easy-to-Use and Free Tool for Citing References

Photo by Isabel Wang @ Up and Better

My favorite style of citing references is to append a bibliography list at the end of the article. It is mostly personal preference, but this style also offers several benefits, compared to embedded links in the text, to readers in certain fields.

A Reference List Appeals to Readers in Certain Fields

Typically the reference list includes title, author name, year of publication, and volume and page of each citation.  If an article is on topics in science, medicine or engineering, its readers, including me, are used to seeing and using such a reference list.

A reference list allows the readers to quickly evaluate the timeliness, authority and relevance of each citation, and then determine which ones suits their particular interests for further reading.

Online links to many scientific articles do not provide full text unless you pay a rather steep fee. But readers may have access to full text through professional databases through their employer.  An organized list makes it easy for readers to search articles in a database.

In addition, some older books and scientific articles do not have a record online. A reference list organizes old publications without online links along with other references in a neat and consistent format.

Zotero is the Best Free Reference Software I have Used

Endnote1 has been the mainstream software for managing and formatting bibliographies. It has many powerful functions and is being updated regularly.  But there are a few caveats. The full version costs $250. Unless you work for an institution that already have a group license, it is hard to justify buying a software that you might not use everyday. 

Before I settled on Zotero2, I used Endnote at my job for some years. However, it did not work well for me. It was not always easy for me to find the functions I needed. In the meanwhile, it had many features that I never needed or understood.  It allows collaboration between multiple writers. However, during my collaboration with co-authors, some conflicting editing occurred, and references got out of order.  We had to redo every reference from scratch, which was not fun.

Then I ran into the free software Zotero. I stayed with it for the past 10 years, for several good reasons.

  • It is free.
  • It is a central place for all my references, and makes doing research easy

A writer can easily have hundreds to thousands of references related to different topics. In Zotero, they can be kept in one library, and organized into different folders. I have folders for each separate topic of research, such as Diabetes, RNA biology, Favorite recipes, Fun reads, etc. All folders are visible right in front of me once I open the software.

 Each reference in the library has a note page, where you could jolt down your note during reading. The articles and its associated notes are searchable within the database.

  • It allows me to save online resources on the fly.

It comes with an option as a browser extension. You could save any webpages into the library for later. Several other free softwares have the same function such as Evernote3. While Evernote may be powerful for taking notes, Zotero makes it easy to add online references into the manuscript that I am working on, as described below.

  • Citing as you write (CAYW).

I installed the Zotero plug-in for Microsoft word. With the plug-in, I insert the reference from the library while I am writing. Once I am done, I can generate a formatted reference list at the end of article by one click.

  • Reformatting for submission to a different journal is made easy.

Each professional journal has its own requirements for citation format. When an article is rejected by a journal, it will need to be reformatted for another one before resubmission. Manual formatting of reference list is extremely tedious and boring. Zotero has a large collection of templates for different journals for users to download. It takes one click to reformat using a template.

  • It is user-friendly and intuitive.

By clicking through the menu, I learned to use the basic features in 10 minutes. After that, I figured out other features during every usage.


1.       EndNote | Clarivate Analytics. EndNote. Accessed December 11, 2019.

2.       Zotero | Your personal research assistant. Accessed December 11, 2019.

3.       Best Note Taking App – Organize Your Notes with Evernote. Evernote. Accessed December 11, 2019.

About the Author Isabel Wang, MD/PhD

I received my MD from PUMC in Beijing China and my Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Stony Brook University on Long Island. Over the years, I have worked in the fields of genetic research and clinical medicine in different parts of the US, including PA, MO, CT, FL, NY and MI. My research has been published in multiple scientific journals. Currently I live in Ann Arbor, MI with my husband and our children and Mango the orange tabby. I love hiking, running, baking, cooking and biking.

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