Best Bibliography/Citation Tools and How to Use Them: Complete Citation Guide

 It is essential to cite the information used in your research. There are different tools to help you properly credit information sources.

Plagiarism and content theft are taken very seriously in the internet world. Google penalizes websites displaying copied content. However, it is challenging to check for plagiarism while generating research papers, and that’s where citation tools can help. Bibliography management tools help to create a citation in different styles. 

Why are citation tools important?

Attribution allows you to check the facts mentioned in your creation. It helps verify statistics via the research behind it. To be credible, you always want to cite your sources. Citation makes the document trustworthy and authentic.

A useful bibliography or citation offers valuable information about your manuscript and reflects your knowledge in the field. This marks you as a well-informed scientist or researcher.

Common Citation styles and which one to use

There are over 3000 esoteric ways to cite your sources, but you don’t need to learn about all of them. You will be using standard citation styles during referencing.

Here are 4 of the most common citations that you would use.


American Psychological citation style is generally used for journal articles. This style can help in comprehension. It is widely used in scientific journals and books. APA style is used in Science, Education, and Psychology.


Modern Language Association style is used in the Humanities and Arts. The primary audience using MLA citation includes professors, academic students, and content writers.


Chicago/Turabian style is used by Business, History, and Fine Arts.

Turabian is a smaller version of the Chicago Style Manual developed for high school and college students for writing papers and theses. Chicago Style is aimed at professional scholars and related publishers.    

Citation vs. Bibliography vs. reference: what’s the difference-

Citation includes the work cited or sources in your research. You need to alphabetically cite the work and paraphrase it.  The reference is a citation using APA style.

On the contrary, the bibliography includes a list of all the sources or material used in creating the document, regardless of the actual reference in the content.

Although you can handcraft the entire citation, it will save time if you use a citation tool. There are different citation and bibliography tools for creating a source list to cite the sources properly. Here are some of the best tools.

Free offline citation tools- For research papers/journals/books and related content type  

Before we get to descriptions and usage, you might want to know the best citation tool. There are no perfect citation tools, but some citation managers may fit better than others.

Do you need to know which citation tool will be best for you? Here is a comparison between 4 offline tools. You can compare different management software here.

Zotero 5.0

Zotero is an easy to use offline tool for organizing, citing, and sharing your research sources. Use it when your research content is diverse. It has automatic file detection and you can add the PDF to your library with one click.   

Key Features

  • PDF metadata retrieval for creating citation by drag and drop of PDF files
  • Zotero has a single-click capture option for faster addition
  • Works on multiple web browsers
  • Includes the most recent version of citation style
  • Open source platform with no required subscription

How to use Zotero 5.0

Zotero has recently upgraded from version 4.0 to 5.0. This is because of the change in Firefox framework. The new version is easier to use, and you can easily install the standalone and add the browser extension. 

If you are already using Zotero 4.0 version, here is how to update your standalone or Firefox version.

Installing Zotero

To start, go to the Zotero download page and download Zotero for your platform.

​Next, select the browser connecter based on your web browser. After installing Zotero, you'll need to register.

Registering your free account

Getting registered on the page allows you to share and sync research content. You will be able to access your Zotero account anywhere.

Go to this page to enter your details, and then click on register.

You can also follow the steps from this page to get started.

Synchronising Zotero for your browser

When you have Zotero installed, you will be able to sync Zotero to your browser. This allows you to access the library from anywhere.

​Click on the set-up syncing on the installed homepage and enter the account details, i.e., username and password to sync Zotero.

Another way of to do this is to go to Menu>Edit>Preferences>Sync and enter the details.

Adding items to your Zotero library

Zotero automatically detects and shows the files with a citation. You will see icons for books, journals or websites visited, with citation details. Just click on the Icon you see on the right corner of your browser, and there will be a list of different sources.

​For journal databases, go to Edit>Preferences and select the automatically attach the PDF feature. This will save both the citation and text file (in PDF format).

Adding items manually-

You can also the items manually. Here are some of the ways for doing this-

​Using unique identifiers- Click on the icon above and enter the ISBN, DOI or PMID number. These are the unique Identification numbers given to books, journals, and other documentation. If you are not sure about these numbers, find out here.

Using RIS number- For journals where icons do not appear, search for the links for exporting to the reference manager and download the RIS file.

Adding without icon- If you want information from an article or book or other content and the icon doesn’t come up, you can click on the plus button and select the item type from the dropdown menu. You will see an empty item. Click the item and you can manually add the info in the right column.

For PDF files- You can also add the PDF from your computer. Drag and drop the PDF file, and retrieve metadata. It will get the full record of the file.

For Importing files- If you have a file on another reference manager and want to import the item, go to Menu>Import and select the item. You can use this page for more information.

Creating bibliographies/citation list-

There are different ways of creating a bibliography. Here is the easiest one.

Select the items for citation from your Zotero window and right-click. Select the create bibliography option. 

You will see a more detailed tab as shown ​above. Select the citation style and then select bibliography. If you are working on a Microsoft Word document, then select copy to clipboard. Paste the citation in Word and you are done.

​Selecting the output as an RTF file will save the file as a rich text file, and HTML output will allow you to view the file in your web browser. Alternatively, you can select the items and drop it into the text file. Zotero will directly create a bibliography for you. 

RTF Scan- If you have created the citation in plain text and want to change it to a particular citation style, go to tools>RTL scan. Select the file, and you will see the list of recognized citations. Verify them and click on next. Zotero extracts and reformats the citation style, and saves it as a text rich file.

Organizing your research-

​Next thing to do after creating citations is to get it organised. ​​​

Creating collections

​For multiple projects, you could create collections to manage content easily. Collections are a folder containing all the items you created. For instance, if you are working on a book, you can create a collections folder. You can also add a sub-folder of sub-collections to put citations of each chapter into a different sub-folder within the collections folder.

To do this, go to the left area containing my library and right-click, and select the new collection option. Drag and drop the files from a single project into the new collection folder. You can add multiple sub-collections for different chapters.

Creating Notes

You can also place a specific note on your items or create a standalone note (it will appear with all the items). These notes are searchable via the Zotero search.

​For creating notes, select the files and enter your note in the text editor on the right side. Make sure to choose the notes option from the above icon.

You can also create a standalone note without selecting any file.

Tags and Related

Similarly, you can add tags to a specific folder from the text editor on the right side. Added tags would appear on the right side to make navigation easy.

You can select the ‘related’ option above the text editor for items or files that are closely related.

Learn more about tags and collections.

Sharing and collaborating your work

You can create groups for sharing your citation work. Here is a quick video to learn how. You will need to login to your online Zotero account to do this. 

Additional Zotero plugins

If your work is mostly assisted by MS Word, you can add the Zotero word plugin. This integrates Zotero within the Word document and allows you to cite with ease.

There are many more plugins for improving the dynamic functionality of Zotero, but most aren’t yet compatible with the 5.0 version.

You can also visit Zotero’s official screencast page for additional information about the tool.


​Mendeley is a citation management software developed by a London-based company. It helps with citation and bibliography creation. It includes PDF annotation for librarians, researchers, students, and lecturers.

While Mendeley is a free citation tool, you can improve the library space and gain added features by upgrading to a paid plan.

Use Mendeley if your citation and research work is done on PDF files.  It is integrated with the PDF viewer system allowing you to create citations by importing the PDF item. Mendeley is one of the most popular platforms for citation work.

Key Features:

  • Extendable library space
  • Integrated PDF viewer
  • Updated by company
  • Group Connect and Share feature available

How to use -Using Mendeley is simple, and they have an official guide for getting started.


RefWorks is an online-based reference management owned by Proquest. Unlike Zotero or Mendeley, this tool is not available for free (there is a trial). RefWorks allows the user to create a specific database and use it for research work. You can easily organize your reference work with this software.

Key Features:

  • Integrated RSS feed reader for importing RSS feed data
  • Quick search for faster management
  • Upgraded on regular basis


Endnote is well-designed software for creating citations, bibliographies and managing references. You can use it for writing essays. It is a more advanced tool with features to help improve work flow.

EndNote X8 is not free and needs to be purchased.

Key features:

  • Highly compatible with all OS
  • Easy library sharing with activity feed
  • Multiple users’ accessibility feature  

Online citation tools- For Quick Citation 

You can use online citation tools for small projects, or when you need  citations fast. Here are some online tools that help create references, citations, and bibliographies.


Easybib is one of the best citation tools. It provides an easy-to-use interface for creating digital and print bibliographies. Easybib is integrated with 59+ writing sources including journals, books, newsletters, and websites.  Easybib is free and does not require an additional subscription.


Docear is a free open-source academic literature and citation management tool. You can create and categorize annotations online via single section UI. You can access it using any platform including Windows, Linux or Mac.

Citation Machine

Citation Machine is a popular, free bibliography and citation tool.  You can choose from a wide range of citation styles from its library. Citation Machine provides a guide for citing different styles including APA, MLA, and Chicago.

The authenticity of your research content can be scanned with the plagiarism checker.  You can cite any of the sources, i.e., films, newspapers, books, and others.


CitethisforMe is a freemium citation tool with many great features. Easily accessible, this tool has a clean interface. You will have a long list of sources, citation styles, and editing features with CiteThisforMe.

You can get additional features such as an integrated plagiarism checker, Chrome extension, and a mobile app as well.


Bibme is a citation tool with dynamic functionality. You can cite with any of the 4 styles (APA, MLA, Chicago or Turabian) with ease. The Source range is wide; covering both digital as well as print-based material. It is integrated with a plagiarism checker for delivering original content. Bibme can be used for free.

Important tips for creating citations–

Know your citation style guide

Different universities and journals use different referencing styles. Make sure to find the compatible styling guide used for your project.

Always re-check the citation

Data created by citation management tools are not human-checked and may contain errors. Always check the citation list to confirm the authenticity of your research paper.

Citation and bibliography: Know the difference

Don’t get confused between the citation and the bibliography.

The citation is a reference list for the sources cited in your paper. However, the bibliography includes every piece of material used for constructing the project, even if it is not cited in your journal.

Over to you

Citation tools can save time and improve efficiency. You can use the citation management tool that best fits your needs. For instance, Zotero is the best citation tool, but not if your work is primarily contained in PDF format (then you would need Mendeley).

If you just need a quick citation; there would be no point in downloading the entire software. In that case, you can use online citation tools like Citation Machine or EasyBib.

Peter is an old-school research lover and e-learning expert. When he is not writing online, he could be found discovering new citation tools.