How to Solve Your Citation Problems with Reference Generators and More

It's the easiest way to cite all those references

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When you write research papers, you need to make sure you also cite your references in the correct format. That used to mean a lot of tedious work looking up APA or MLA formatting rules and alphabetizing your reference section. These days, a reference generator and reference management systems can take the hassle out creating properly formatted citations.

Which Format Do You Need?

Before you start your paper, you should know what formatting style you need to use. In North America, the two most common formats for school papers are MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association). High schools and many undergraduate programs use MLA format. Some graduate programs use APA format. You may also occasionally run into professors who prefer Chicago (Chicago Manual of Style) format, which is used for research intended for publication, such as books, technical manuals, and journals. You may also run into other formats.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab is an excellent source for understanding the style requirements for all of these formats without having to purchase an expensive manual. (Some of us now own three different versions of the APA style guide thanks to our doctoral programs.) Although a reference generator will tell you how to format your citations, it will not give you the other formatting guidelines you'll need to use in your paper.

What Is a Reference Generator?

A reference generator is a software tool or app that helps you convert your reference into a properly formatted citation. Most citation generators guide you through the process by having you what type of material you're citing (books, magazines, interviews, websites, etc) and creating the citation for you. Some reference generators will also create bibliographies for you out of multiple citations. Reference generators are great if all you want to do is cite 2-4 references in a paper that you're writing on a topic you're not going to revisit. For more complex citation needs, you should consider a reference management system.

There's a lot of consolidation in the reference generator space, and many popular apps have been recently acquired by Chegg, a company that sells tools and services for college students.

Let’s take a look at the tools available to you either as programs you download for your computer or services you use on the web. The first one you might already be familiar with, but I’m going to go over it anyway since generating references and citations isn’t something people do very often (so a little refresher might come in handy). We'll cover:

  • Microsoft Word
  • Citation Machine
  • Cite This for Me
  • Zotero
  • Mendeley
  • EndNote

Reference Generators Using Microsoft Word

You can use recent versions of Word for both Windows or Mac as your reference generator and automatically generate a bibliography at the end. If you don't have a huge amount of references, this may be all you need. This is also a good option if you need to make footnotes in the middle of your manuscript instead of just creating a bibliography at the end of your work.

  1. In Word, go to the References tab in the ribbon.

  2. Choose a citation format from the drop-down menu.

  3. Click Insert Citation.

  4. You'll need to enter all the information about your citation by hand. You do have a pull-down tab for the type of work being cited.

  5. Your reference will be inserted within the text.

  6. Once you have finished your paper, you can use the Bibliography button to generate your works cited. Select either Bibliography or Works Cited and an appropriately labeled list will be generated.

There are a few disadvantages to using the built-in Word tool. You have to enter each citation by hand which can be time-consuming. If you change any of your references, you have to re-generate your bibliography. Your bibliography and references are only specific to the paper you're writing. You can't easily save them into a central database to use on your other papers.

Citation Machine

One excellent reference generator is Citation Machine, which was acquired by Chegg. Citation Machine supports MLA (7th ed), APA (6th ed), and Chicago (16th ed). You can generate a citation manually based on selecting the type of media you want to cite, such as a book, film, website, magazine, newspaper, or journal. You can also save a lot of time by searching by ISBN, author, or book title.

Even if you use the autofill option, you may still need to enter more information, such as what page number(s) you want to cite and the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) if you were using an online version.

  • Cost: Citation Machine is a freemium service. The free version is ad-supported and requires you to copy and paste your references. For a subscription, Chegg removes the ads, supports more citation formats, and allows you to download citations in Word format. It also gives you access to Chegg's plagiarism detection service.
  • Other Features: The Citation Machine website will also generate a title page in your desired format and has style guides for each format. We still prefer Purdue OWL's guides over Chegg's.

More Chegg Products

As previously mentioned, Chegg has acquired a lot of previously independent reference generators. RefME used to be a solid choice if you wanted a reference generator that also created a bibliography. Users of RefME are now being redirected to Cite This for Me, which is yet another Chegg product. EasyBib and BibMe are similar to Citation Machine.

Cite This for Me

Cite This for Me is also a Chegg product which supports current versions of MLA, APA, and Chicago formats along with a variety of other formats. It's worth mentioning because it does more than just generate a single citation at a time. The interface is a little less intuitive than Citation Machine, but the features are more sophisticated. Cite This for Me offers more nuanced options for the type of media you want to cite, including modern options like podcasts or press releases. You can generate your entire bibliography online at once instead of copying and pasting each entry, and you can create an account that will remember the works you've saved to your bibliography.

  • Cost and Premium Features: Like Citation Machine, Cite This for Me is freemium software. For a subscription, you can remove the ads and download a Word plug-in (Word for Windows only) in order to sync citations with Word as you write. Subscribers also have access to a barcode scanning app for iOS or Android that lets you scan your books to enter them as references more quickly, a chrome plug-in to cite websites, and Chegg's plagiarism detection service (five checks per month).
  • Other Features: Cite This for Me provides style guides and topic ideas. Topic ideas are meant to show what other users are researching. Subscribers can also create and save multiple bibliographies at once, while free users are restricted to just one. This feature makes Cite This for Me an entry-level reference management system as well as a reference generator.

What Is a Reference Management System?

A reference management system keeps track of your references. In most cases, they also tie into Word and keep track of what you've cited as you go and generate a bibliography. Some citation management systems also store copies of the papers you're citing and allow you to take notes and organize your cited works as you go. This is especially useful in graduate school where you'll often be writing multiple papers on the same topic and will want to reference the same works in other papers.

All of these options support most major formats, including APA, MLA, and Chicago.


Zotero is a free app that is available online or as a download for Mac, Windows or Linux. Zotero has browser plugins for Chrome, Safari, or Firefox and extensions for Word and Libreoffice. Zotero was created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and development is funded through charitable grants. As such, Zotero is not likely to be sold to Chegg.

Zotero manages your references but not the physical files. You can attach a link to a file you have stored elsewhere if you have a physical copy of the file. This means if you're meticulous, you can store all your files in Dropbox or Google Drive and link to the files. You can also rent file storage space from Zotero if you want to use Zotero for file management.

  • Entering References: You can import references from a large variety of citation export formats, including BibTeX, Endnote, RIS, and Web of Science. You can also enter an ISBN or DOI for a quick lookup. You can also use the browser extensions to add citations from the web. You can also create separate citations for individual chapters of a book (useful for books with different authors for each chapter). If you are using APA format, you may find that you need to tweak the capitalization on some items in Zotero so that they export correctly as citations.
  • Sorting and Managing References: Zotero uses a folder metaphor. Items can be stored in more than one folder, and folders can be nested. When you import some formats, it automatically generates a folder for the import, so you may have to do some cleanup to keep your folders straight. You can also tag items to filter by tag and associate related items with a reference.
  • Notes: You can take notes in Zotero using a rich-text entry tab. Because Zotero doesn't store your files by default, your notes are just separate notes. However, you can export them.
  • Citation and Bibliographies: Use the Zotero plug-in for Word in place of the default Word citation tools, and Zotero will generate in-line references and a bibliography at the end. Unlike Word's tool, Zotero's bibliography auto-updates as you write and include or remove references. Zotero also supports citing multiple works in a single in-line citation.
  • Other Features: Zotero lets you create online private or public groups to share references for group projects.


Mendeley is available as an online app and as downloads for Windows or Mac as well as Android and iOS. Mendeley also offers browser extensions and plug-ins for Word.

Mendeley manages both your citations and your files. If you use a lot of downloaded journals and scanned chapters or pages from books in your research, Mendeley can be a real time saver. By default, your items will be backed up on Mendeley's servers (they charge a premium if you go beyond the default storage limits). You can specify a different folder and use your desktop or cloud storage instead.

  • Entering References: If you have a PDF file, you can create a reference to it by just adding the file. Mendeley scans the file for reference information. Some journals also embed metadata to make this process even easier. It's not a perfect tool, so you do sometimes have to enter details manually. If you are on a website, you can use the Mendeley browser extension to create a reference to it, although this also sometimes needs tweaking.
    • You can create a "watch folder" on your desktop that Mendeley will automatically scan for new files and import anything it finds.
    • You can also import EndNote, RIS, BibTeX, and Zotero databases. There's currently no easy way to add files by ISBN or DOI.
  • Organizing References: Mendeley can organize by folder or tag, just like Zotero. Mendeley also offers some easy filters, such as recently added and unsorted.
  • Notes: Notes in Mendeley can be entered as rich text as in Zotero (although with a slightly more limited text entry tool). If you are storing the file in Mendeley, you can also use Mendeley's markup tools to highlight passages and add text notes. The file itself isn't changed. This is metadata stored alongside the file.
  • Other Features: You can share files with collaborators in either public or private groups. (The free edition only allows you one private group with three collaborators). Public groups share references only, but private groups can also share files. Files you share with a group can also share the highlights and notes.
    • Mendeley has a powerful suggestion engine that suggests more research based on your citation. If the citation is in a private journal, you'll still need to have access to that journal to read the paper.


EndNote is professional level software that may be worth the investment for groups and institutions or students at the dissertation level. The interface also has a steeper learning curve than either Zotero or Mendeley.

EndNote Basic is the free, online version of EndNote. You can use it to store up to 2 gigs of files and 50,000 references. You can also export references and sync with Word using the EndNote Word plug-in.

EndNote desktop is commercial software that runs $249 for the full version, although a student discount is available. The desktop download also comes in a 30-day trial version.

  • Entering References: EndNote lets you search databases to find and enter citations directly. You have to have database access through your academic library, but EndNote supports easy importing from most major databases, including PubMed and Web of Science. You can also import your PDFs and manage them through stored space as you can do with Mendeley.
  • Organizing References: EndNote uses groups as the main organization tool. Groups behave the same way folders do for Zotero and Mendeley. You can also create smart groups that automatically filter for specific metadata.
  • Notes: You can annotate your stored PDFs as you can with Mendeley and share those annotations with groups.
  • Sharing: EndNote is built around group collaboration and allows up to 100 collaborators along with tracking tools.
  • Other Features: EndNote can find full-text articles in connected databases if you've only imported the reference. If you're a professional researcher, EndNote can also help find an appropriate journal to publish your work.