Adventures in Bibliographic Citations

In a one-shot instruction session, how much time can a librarian feasibly devote to teaching students how to use their research ethically and cite their sources properly? I might have five minutes to demonstrate how to use the library’s citation LibGuides and throw in a quick warning about citation generators, such as those in research databases like Academic Search Complete.

Even when I am able to go over bibliographic citations, inevitably I will see a student jump onto the EasyBib website and fill out the manual citation form. Often, when I catch students in the act, I jokingly issue my “Pepsi Challenge” and say that I can properly document a source the old-fashioned way with a handbook more quickly than a student can fill out a manual form in a citation generator. When I first taught College English, the only electronic resource listed in the MLA handbook was a CD-ROM. Now, with a huge pool of resources from which to choose, it’s no wonder students struggle to cite their sources. It’s also no wonder students often turn to citation tools.

As Marino observes, “In light of this development, librarians can no longer provide support for only those options traditionally found in academic libraries, but must become acquainted with the much larger set of new tools that their users have discovered and are employing” (296-97). Of course, there exists a wide variety of different citation tools from which to choose. Marino highlights eight factors to consider: 1. Environment, 2. User need, 3. Software’s purpose, 4. System and browser requirements, 5. Accessibility, 6. Desired features, 7. Vendor support, and 8. Cost.  When considering this criteria, one can quickly recognize that students want a citation tool that is easy and quick.

My library does not subscribe to EndNote or RefWorks, but due to student interest, we designed a “Cite It Right” workshop to introduce students to a select number of tools: EasyBib, Zotero, and Mendeley. The library selected these particular tools to give students an idea of the variety of citation tools and the range of features.

EasyBib is a web-based tool, which makes it easy to access, and as the name suggests, easy to use. MLA citations are free, but a paid subscription is required for other citations styles, such as APA and Chicago. The interface is simple and user-friendly. A student can select a source option and then fill in the appropriate fields. Students can cite a website by providing the URL or a book with just its ISBN. EasyBib will also ask for information it was unable to locate. Citations can be copy/pasted or exported to Microsoft Word. Recently, EasyBib has become an add-on for Google Docs. An EasyBib app is also available; however, the features are disappointingly limited, with a preference for print books.

Zotero is a browser extension for Firefox, which might deter students. It is a free tool, but students will need to sign up with an account. Students can select from two different versions, Zotero for Firefox, with the option to download a Word plugin, or Zotero Standalone, with support for Firefox, Chrome, & Safari, and automatically includes the Word plugin. Students can easily add web-based sources to their Zotero library and can export sources from library databases. Zotero allows students to import or add tags to sources and create folders to organize sources for different research assignments. Students can use Zotero’s Word plugin to insert in-text citations and generate a bibliography.

Mendeley is also a free citation management tool that offers a desktop program with a web complement. Students must create a free basic account or sign up with Facebook and then download and install the program. Mendeley offers a web importer to make it easy to add web sources; the importer appears as a button on the browser’s toolbar. One outstanding feature is students’ ability to upload PDFs of their sources to their Mendeley library. Students then can annotate the PDFs or highlight passages. Like Zotero, Mendeley allows students to create folders to organize sources. Students can install the Word plugin, and the Mendeley “Cite-O-Matic” will generate in-text citations and bibliographies. An app is also available.

The “Cite It Right” workshop always ends with words of caution. Citation tools are far from perfect, and it is important for students to check their citations for accuracy and completeness. Of course, librarians and writing tutors are available to assist students in what they may see as a daunting task. Which citation tools have you explored? Which, if any, would you recommend to your students? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.


1Marino, William. “Fore-cite: Tactics for Evaluating Citation Management Tools,” Reference Services Review 40, no. 2 (2012): 295-310.

Dana Knott
Library Coordinator, Columbus State Community College

This entry was posted in ALAO, Cool Tools, Information Literacy. Bookmark the permalink.

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