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Citation Management Tools: Overview

Refworks, Zotero, Mendeley, EndNote. Which one is the right reference management tool for you? Start here.

About citation managers

A citation manager helps you keep track of articles and books as you find them, tag and annotate them, and easily create citations and bibliographies in Microsoft Word. Using any citation manager will be more efficient for most scholars than not using one at all. Each manager has its own plug-in for Microsoft Word and some also have browser plug-ins for easy capture of web links. Each manager also has built-in connections to Google Scholar and common library reference databases. Each manager has options for group-based collaborative research.

We offer four main choices to you in this guide: RefWorks, Zotero, Mendeley, and Endnote.

RefWorks, the most popular choice on campus, is provided by Penn Libraries for the Penn community (including alumni). It is a stable, well-established platform, but has limitations in terms of working with PDF files.

Endnote, the oldest of the five, works well for the health sciences and for large collections of articles, despite some technical and installation issues.

Zotero is an open-source software program that is notable for its ease of use, its ability to grab screenshots, and its capabilities for archiving website content for local storage.

Mendeley, the newest option of the five, is a cloud-based proprietary system that includes Facebook-style social networking, PDF annotation, a platform for self-promotion and crowd-sourcing of citations and annotations. Mendeley has a wide range of functionality but suffers from performance and accuracy issues.

We recommend that you explore a variety of citation managers, consulting with library staff as needed, before choosing one. We can provide guidance on best practices and share our experiences.

Full Comparison of Citation Software

 Thanks to Mat Willmott at MIT Libraries for creating the template for this chart.






Link to web guides Quick-Start Guides Documentation Support Technical Support & Services



Desktop software and browser add-on for Firefox, Chrome, and Safari (newest version includes single sign-on through

Desktop software and web-based. Works with IE, Firefox, Chrome and Safari

Desktop client software; also has web interface, EndNote Web


Free via Penn license. Sign up for an individual account on the RefWorks website. (Penn only)

Free with 300 MB of back-up storage.  Storage upgrades available for a monthly fee. Open source. 

Download Zotero

Free with 2GB of web space and 100 MB shared library space. Storage upgrades available for a monthly fee.

Download Mendeley

Desktop software available at Penn Computer Connection for $119.95.  Endnote Web Basic with 2GB storage is free.

Learning curve Fairly quick to learn; many online user guides and demos Quick to learn; simple design, many online user guides and demos Quick to learn. Pretty simple interface Takes longer to learn, but not difficult with training


  • Allows users to share citations
  • Good for organizing citations for papers
  • Web-based
  • Since Penn has a site license, there's no cost
  • Available to Penn alumni as long as Penn maintains its subscription
  • Simple download of records
  • Good for managing a variety of formats, including webpages
  • Offers most functionality in a free, open-source product
  • Downloads records from with several databases that don't work with EndNote and RefWorks, such as Factiva and USPTO
  • Great for managing PDFs
  • Has a social aspect. Can see what other users are reading and citing. Find other members with common research interests.
  • Does an excellent job of pulling citation metadata from PDFs
  • Can share citations and documents with others
  • Excellent for organizing citations for papers and theses
  • Best option for major research projects, because it offers the most options for customization and formatting
  • Most output styles for formatting
  • Most customizable
  • Can handle a large amount of references

How does it work?

You export references from compatible databases into RefWorks

Zotero can tell when you are looking at an item and shows an icon for it in the Firefox URL bar.  Click the icon to add the item to your Zotero references

You export references from compatible databases. Mendeley will also retrieve metadata for pdfs that are brought in

You export references from compatible databases into EndNote

Does it have many output styles and bibliographic formats?

Yes, many popular styles and formats

Yes, many popular styles and formats

Yes, many popular styles and formats

Yes, many popular styles and formats

How simple is it to import records? Simple to import records from most research databases Very simple, as long as the resource is compatible with Zotero, but you will want to verify that the records are complete after import Very simple using the Mendeley browser plugin. However, the import doesn't work with as many databases as other products. Simple to import records from most research databases

What kinds of records can you import and organize (PDFs, images, etc.)?

Records for articles and books

Books, articles, patents, and webpages; Can also store PDFs, web screenshots, files, and images in records. You can make PDFs searchable by choosing to index them in the preferences menu.

You can import bibliographic citations and PDFs. Can also manually add citations

Can organize records for articles and books; PDFs and other file types can also be stored in the records.  Can download PDFs in batches. PDFs aren't searchable.

Are records in your library viewable by others? Yes; Users can share references in library with other RefWorks users Yes.  Users can set up individual and group profiles and share records Yes. Users can set up groups to share references. Users can decide whether or not to make their library viewable by others No.
Can you export records to other citation software? Yes Yes Yes. Export to EndNote XML, RIS and BibTeX Yes
Is managing and maintaining a big library (1000 records) complicated? Not complex, but it can be cumbersome to manage large libraries More difficult; takes time to sort out duplicates and verify that records are complete No known problems. May need to purchase extra space. Not complex; EndNote is best option for maintaining large libraries
Does it work with word processing software? Works with Word through "Write-N-Cite" feature and LaTex through BibTex Works with Word and Open Office; also works with LaTex through BibTex.  You can create a list of Works Cited for Google Docs Works with Word and OpenOffice. Clean integration with Word and powerful formatting and customization features; also works with Open Office and LaTex through BibTex
Does it back up your records? Yes Yes, if you choose to back up or sync your Zotero library. A small amount of storage is free. Yes No
Other important features
  • Since it's web-based, you're not limited to a single machine
  • If you back up records, you can sync multiple computers
  • Integrated with work on web that you do
  • Fastest download of records
  • Saves snapshot of web pages
  • Allows users to highlight text and take notes on page
  • Allows users to tag records
  • Very good for collaborative work
  • Has a good PDF reader that enables highlighting and comments
  • PDF file management and organization features