Using Reference Management Software

By Gary R. Moser, Institutional Research, Analysis, and Decision Support Analyst, California State University-East Bay

As IR professionals it is important to stay on top of the academic literature and to cite those publications in our work. In order to do that well, I find it helpful to have a dedicated system for collecting, organizing, and accessing scholarly works of interest. That is what reference management software is designed to do.

The one I like best is JabRef, but there are many others to choose from. There exists a comparison of reference management software that should help you zero-in on the best one or two to try:

The first thing you will need to do is create a new reference database to hold your references. This is easily done using File > New Database. Your new database will appear as a tab in the main window. If you close JabRef with the dabase open in a tab, it will be opened automatically the next time you start the program (so you can just leave it open). Now that you have an empty database, you can add references in two main ways – by hand or automatically using web-based services.  Below, you can see what JabRef looks like. My reference database is open, and some of the references in it are visible.


1. Importing References

To add a reference by hand:

Either from the menu choose BibTeX > New Entry or from the toolbar click the green plus sign and choose an entry type (e.g., Article, Book, Periodical, ...). An input window will appear; simply enter the information as prompted (Author, Title, Journal, Year, ...). One useful field to complete is Key Words. This allows one to quickly locate multiple references in your database that are relevant to specific topics as defined by you.

To add a reference automatically:

This is an area where JabRef really shines. Using the “Web Search” window, you can use any number of web-based tools to locate and automatically import references into your database. For example, I chose Google Scholar from the drop-down of services and searched for “theory of college retention.”

...which, as you might expect, gave me many results:


Checking the references you want to import and clicking OK imports the complete reference into your database.  Other useful services in the Web Search drop-down menu include” ISBN to BibTeX” which gets the complete reference for a book based on the ISBN number, or  “DOI to BibTeX” which does the same using DOI.

2. Organizing References

Once you have many references, JabRef’s organization tool s become very valuable. In the screen capture showing JabRef above, you can see that I’ve defined a number of groups for categories I frequently use. However, in most cases, just searching the titles using the “Search” window narrows it down enough. There are more advanced features for those who need them, such as using regular expressions to search specific fields of references.

3. Creating Bibliographies

Finally, once you have written a document with references, a bibliography for those citations can be automatically created.

This is done by selecting the references used in you paper (Ctrl + Click references to select multiple rows). Once they are selected, choose File > Export Selected Entries and choose a file format. I’m using “Harvard RTF (*.rtf),” but there are many others to choose from (you can define your own layout style, too). Below are the results:

Astin, A. W. (1993), What matters in college? Four critical years revisited., Jossey-Bass. 

Means, B.; Toyama, Y.; Murphy, R.; Bakia, M. & Jones, K. (2010), Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies., US Department of Education.

Moser, G. R. (2014), First-Year Retention by Region, Academic, and Non-Academic Factors Among First-Time Freshmen Fall Cohorts - 2009 to 2012., Technical report, CSU East Bay.

In an effort to be concise, some details have been left out of this tip. Fortunately, there is good online documentation for this product. I am also happy to answer any questions about how I use JabRef. I hope many of you find this to be a useful addition to your IR toolbox, just as I have.



To add a comment, Sign In
Total Comments: 10
Denise posted on 4/10/2014 9:54 AM
This information is very helpful.
Pam posted on 4/10/2014 10:01 AM
I thought about using a system like this for my thesis, but I ended up just searching and saving pdf's the "old fashion way." Is it possible to use this to create a shared office database as well? It's a great idea to have easy access to all of your resources. The searchability of it is great too. Would it also be possible to add our own research to this? For example, if I conducted a study just for my institution could I save it in the database as well so it would be easy for me and others to find?
Terry posted on 4/10/2014 10:23 AM
Goodness knows we could all use better organization. I'm certainly guilty of putting interesting references here and there and everywhere.
Julia posted on 4/10/2014 10:40 AM
I am always interested in learning of new tools to keep me organized. I am currently writing my dissertation and feel I have references in multiple locations - this might be a good source to move them to. Thanks for sharing!
Shabnam posted on 4/10/2014 12:44 PM
Information is extremely helpful, and keeps work organized in any IR office.
Claire posted on 4/10/2014 12:44 PM
This is very useful, thank you for sharing. I like how it has the different options for adding references along with the categories.
Lee posted on 4/10/2014 1:37 PM
Thanks Gary! This is definitely a helpful tool that can improve the organization and functionality of our IR offices.
Gary posted on 4/10/2014 4:44 PM
Pam, you absolutely can add your own documents - that's one of the main things I use it for. In the window above, you'll see group labels "CSUEB Reports" and "Enrollment Forecasting Reports"....those are all mine. It's handy for accreditational uses when evidence is needed for informed decision-making. The shared office database is a good idea, but I can't speak to multiple users having simultaneous access. I guess that's a nice problem to have, though!

Julia, good luck on your dissertation. I encourage you to try this - having your references organized will reduce the pain of trying to keep track of it all in your head.
Angela posted on 4/11/2014 9:23 AM
Thanks so much for sharing - this looks to be a fantastic tool. I've been dropping miscellaneous articles and websites into OneNote for safekeeping; JabRef may be just the tool to organize them. I can't wait to give it a try!
Mary Jo posted on 4/11/2014 11:52 PM
Thanks for the tip! I will plan to try JabRef out with my next literature research.