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Should I Use Referencing Software?

Referencing is a challenging part of academic writing. It’s slow and painstaking work, and mastering a referencing style takes time. To reference a piece of writing correctly, it can literally come down to the correct placement of commas and full stops.

It’s no wonder then that many students opt to use referencing software such as Endnote, Refworks or Zotero. Since this software emerged in the 1980s, many students (and academics) have been tempted by the promise to save them precious time. On the surface, it looks like all you need to do is input data once and the referencing software spits out your reference whenever you need it.

However, referencing software, like most software, comes with significant drawbacks and risks. These often go undiscussed and come as a surprise to students, especially those working on long documents like theses or books. In this article, we discuss the problems of referencing software and, as a professional academic editing service, even go so far as recommending students don’t use it.

Referencing Software Is Not Perfect

One of the arguments for referencing software is its versatility: it promises to accommodate the demands of many different referencing styles and the unique appearance of their citations in documents. However, this claim is false because referencing software is not able to conform to any referencing style 100% of the time.

As Sandra Meredith explains in her 2013 study, accommodating for the ‘complexity’ of many referencing styles only ‘increases the range of possibilities for problems’ (‘6.4 Summary’, para. 1). For example, referencing software won’t detect inconsistencies in entries. It won’t notice if you’ve spelled an author’s name wrong or if you’ve entered the incorrect publication date. If you haven’t entered all the information required for a correct reference, the software will likely formulate an incomplete reference based on what you have entered. You may think you’ve referenced correctly, but there may be essential components missing. Ultimately, this leads to poor quality references.

Referencing Software Can Be Difficult to Learn to Use

The complexity of the interface (to accommodate the intricacies of different referencing styles) is another issue. The time spent learning how to use to software could be better applied to developing a comprehensive understanding of referencing. Indeed, according to Meredith (2013, ‘9. Conclusion’, para. 1), ‘About half of the survey participants who had tried Endnote had subsequently abandoned it, and instead copy and paste references from one document to another or key them in to each new piece of work anew.’

Referencing Software Is Not a Substitute for Knowing the Rules of Your Referencing Style

Even if you do choose to use referencing software, a comprehensive understanding of referencing is essential to detect the accuracy of the software’s output. Gilmore and Cobus-Kuo (2011, ‘Conclusions’, para. 3) note that many reference management programs still require the user to edit the bibliography or reference list to guarantee accuracy. Even Hantla (2017, para. 12), who sings the praises of referencing software, advises that any downloaded bibliographic data needs to be manually checked, because referencing software is incapable of finding errors in the downloaded content.

According to Gilmore and Cobus-Kuo (2011, ‘Conclusions’, para. 3), ‘users differ in the degree of importance that they attach to flawless bibliography generation’. If accuracy is something you’re after—which I expect it is!—referencing software isn’t necessarily the answer.

Referencing Software Has Poor Learning Outcomes

When you use referencing software, you bypass your learning. Relying on software to formulate your references robs you of an understanding and appreciation for correct use of your chosen referencing style. This in turn affects your ability to identify exactly what information is required to write a correct reference in your chosen style. If you do not know what information is needed, how can you enter the correct details in your referencing software to allow generation of an accurate reference?

Referencing Software Can Lead to More Mistakes

Referencing software cannot tell you if you’ve accidently clicked the wrong reference in your database for the information you’re trying to cite. Mistakenly choosing the wrong citation from a list is much easier to do than typing an entire citation incorrectly after all. This type of mistake can be extremely embarrassing at best, and a matter of grave concern to your examiners at worst!

Hantla (2017, para. 10) concedes that in-text citations generated by referencing software still need to be checked manually. Sometimes these references may have been placed in the incorrect location in the sentence, or after the sentence’s full stop. Obviously, these aspects of referencing need human—not software—intelligence.

Referencing Software Can Fail

Referencing software includes plug-ins that work with word processing software. As with any software, there is potential for bugs. But when you’re using referencing software in conjunction with word processing software, there is additional potential for corruption because your writing is dependent on two pieces of software. This is especially true when you are working with large documents and on multiple computers.

Another downside for EndNote is that it does not allow for its databases to be easily used on multiple computers. Although external hard drives or cloud storage can transfer the library, Meredith (2013) found this to increase the likelihood of corruption.

If the referencing system fails, a student may be forced to begin their referencing from scratch by either entering all that data again into the database or by learning the referencing style and completing the references manually. The blogger, The Thesis Whisperer, experienced this very event just before her thesis was due to be submitted. She lost ‘400 odd references’ from her EndNote library!

What Does This Mean for You?

The question you should be asking yourself is, do the drawbacks and risks associated with referencing software outweigh the time that you can save by using it, especially considering that you should be manually checking every citation and every reference against your chosen style guide every time? If the answer is yes (i.e., you will continue or start using referencing software), are you taking the necessary steps to protect yourself against loss of data, and against overlooked errors in your input and output? If the answer is no (i.e., you will learn to reference manually), which we suspect will be the case for many of you, we can offer you the assurance that referencing is not that difficult, once you get the hang of it. To help you out, we’ve prepared lots of resources, which you can find in the referencing section on our website. If you are an undergraduate student, you may also like to read about how, when and why to reference, and how to organise your research in a way that makes referencing your essays easy.

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