Perfect references in no time: An introduction to free referencing software

A recent JEPS bulletin post revealed that the largest percent (37%) of APA style mistakes in the manuscripts submitted for the 4th issue of the Journal of European Psychology Students (JEPS) are related to reference formatting. This is consistent with the analysis of APA style mistakes from 2010 where the largest proportion of APA style mistakes in the past JEPS submissions were related to references as well, although in a significantly larger percent (51%).

As described in a previous post, writing proper references may involve several issues–correctly listing references cited in text, as well as having all references in the list cited in text. Problems also occur in correct spelling of the references, formatting in-text citations according to APA guidelines, formatting the reference list according to the specific APA rules applying to each type of publication and ordering the references alphabetically by the authors’ surnames.
Even though the APA manual is the guide no.1 in resolving these issues–doing it manually by the book requires a lot of time and attention. The good news is that there is a number of electronic tools that can also help to avoid these mistakes. This post offers you a brief introduction to two solutions–Zotero and Mendeley Desktop.

Zotero version 2.1.8  (Zotero, 2011) is a referencing software that works on Firefox, together with an add-in for Microsoft Word. After installing the software, click on the Zotero icon on the right corner of the browser. Open the pdf in Firefox and save it in the Zotero library. By right-clicking on the saved pdf, you can select the option ‘’retrieve metadata for pdf’’. When working in Microsoft Word, click on the add-in application, and select citation style ‘’American Psychological Association 6th edition’’, and then your Zotero library will open up and you can select the article you would like to cite. An in-text citation will be inserted, and a reference will automatically be added to the reference list. Further citations of the same article will be in accordance with APA style in the text, and the reference list will also be automatically arrange in alphabetic order.

Mendeley Desktop
Similarly, Mendeley Desktop version, (Mendeley, 2011) also has a web browser extension, where you can add a reference to the library when downloading the article, and a plug-in for Microsoft Word. Mendeley has a number of other features such as sticky notes and highlights when reading PDFs, suggestions of similar articles to those you have read and you can also browse Mendeley’s open database. It can also be used in LaTeX (an open source document preparation system used for preparing scientific documents, ) and BibTex (Feder, 2006)- a tool and a file format used to describe and process lists of references, mostly in conjunction with LaTeX documents.

Why use them?
The referencing tools are bound to save you enormous time and effort, and help you focus less on the technical parts of your documents. However, this does not mean that you should have incomplete knowledge of the APA Style guidelines. Referencing software is useful but not perfect–the generated references may be inconsistent or lacking certain parts. It’s the author’s responsibility to make sure everything is correct and in order. Therefore the programs save you the time, but do not excuse you from knowing APA Style.

We look forward to your perfect references in the 5th edition of the Journal of European Psychology Students!

Feder, A. (2006). BibTex [Software]. Retrieved from
The La TeX project. (2012). Retrieved from
LyX – The Document Processor(2012) [Software]. Retrieved from
Mendeley. (2012). (version [Software]. Retrieved from
Zotero [version 2.1.8] (2012). [Software]. Virginia, USA: George Mason University. Retrieved from

Edited by: Maris Vainre

  • adamsmith

    An important correction to this. As opposed to Zotero, which is released under the open source AGPL license, Mendeley is _not_ open source, but instead closed source and proprietary (though free of charge).

  • dimitris

    Adam is right. However, I have to admit I am a huge user of Mendeley. It has changed the way I do research.

    It works on my mac and my pc the same way and it saves my changes on the cloud and synchronizes the two computers, it gives me access to my account and papers even from the browser and it was really easy for me to learn how to use it.
    And I didn’t even started talking about how helpful it can be for group projects.

    I suppose zotero or even other programs might do the same things, but I admit that the business model they chose wasn’t enough to make me not use it (even thought I am a frequent user of open sourced software).

  • Thanks for the comment, I changed the title and the text to be more accurate. Also, I’m happy to hear about your user experience. I’ve only tried Zotero myself. From an editor’s perspective, it is usually easy to distinguish between authors who use any referencing software from those who don’t. The number of mistakes seems to decrease exponentially when using such programs.