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Reference Generators: An Entomology Student’s Review


As entomology students advance toward their degrees, the reference sections of their research papers grow and grow with each new project. One entomology graduate student tested out two free reference generator programs and offers her review of each.

By Katherine Arnold

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

Katherine Arnold

Katherine Arnold

As entomology students, we have all cited something in our research and then, at the end of the paper, had to create a reference section with authors, titles, journals, volumes, and page numbers. For this work, reference generators can be a useful tool. Reference generators are software programs that take all pertinent information and format it according to specific reference style requirements. These programs ensure that every comma, space, and period are correctly placed according to a particular journal format. With there being numerous options available, which generators are the most user friendly? Is it worth spending money on one? What type of formats are available on generator systems?

While exploring research for my thesis project, I found myself in need of a reliable—and preferably free—reference generator. My previous experience with reference generators, while completing my undergraduate degree, was poor. BibMe and EasyBib did the trick for a paper with five to 10 references, but I knew when it came down to my 50-plus references for my thesis, I need something more. I heard excellent reviews about Mendeley and Zotero. Since both were free, I just needed to check how user friendly they were, as I am not a computer genius.


Mendeley was recommended to me by our previous postdoctorate professor. He showed me the Mendeley program he used on his Mac computer. I questioned the program’s ability to run on a Windows HP but figured I had nothing to lose, so I downloaded the program. The program took up 55 megabytes (MB), small compared to the 42 gigabytes required for Windows. I then began to download sources from Google Chrome, which went into the my Downloads folder. From there, I was able to add them into my Mendeley desktop application.

Within Mendeley I was able to quickly access my references and search by author, title, date or key word. I personally appreciated the quick access that displayed the title, authors, year, volume, pages, and—most important to me—the abstract (see right side of the picture below). This allowed me to quickly look over the paper and decide if it was the correct one I was searching for. I also liked the feature to quickly filter by author (left bottom box) which saves time in searching.

Mendeley Desktop

Mendeley Desktop screenshot


Zotero, also a free reference generator, consumed a smaller section of data (40.8 MB). When first starting the program I was directed to a link with a start guide, which I greatly appreciated. Zotero also has a quick access (Zotero Connector) that allowed me to add references from my browser, which rapidly became my preferred method of access for this application. I did have some trouble adding documents that had been downloaded to my files; this may have been  operator error, but the process was less intuitive than with Mendeley.

I came to appreciate Zotero’s information section, which provided more details than Mendeley (e.g., date added/modified, short title name, etc.). (See right sidebar in the picture below.)

Zotero Desktop

Zotero Desktop screenshot

Adding References

The next and arguably the most important part of a reference generator involves adding sources to a document. Both Mendeley and Zotero have different methods of adding resources. Mendeley uses the References tab located in Microsoft Word. Once opened, you can click “insert citation” and choose from your list within Mendeley. Zotero, meanwhile, creates its own tab. (See screenshots below.) From there, you can add sources by clicking “Add/Edit Citation.” Both generators the give you the option to select the type of format required (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.). You can also add different custom formats, specific to individual journals.

Paid Generators

I dabbled with the idea of paying for a reference generator; however, when looking at the options available in paid applications compared to the free ones I’d already explored, it did not seem worth the cost. For me and most other graduate students, we are on tight budgets, living paycheck to paycheck. I personally could not justify the few extras for the additional cost. The two reference generators mentioned here have been exceptional for me and my 50-plus sources. Other paid options give you the benefit of spell and grammar check, refined sentence structure, plagiarism check, and other amenities, however many campuses have writing centers that offer similar services for free. I would personally recommend either Mendeley or Zotero, which can format references in many different methods and save your cash!

Katherine Arnold is a graduate research assistant and a master’s student in agricultural biology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the Southwestern Branch representative to the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Email:


  1. Really interesting. Maybe i will try before enrolling for my PhD at NMSU next year.
    Thank you.

  2. I’ve mostly settled into using RStudio and JabRef. With a little upfront investment, you’ll never work in Word again. RMarkdown is a really great way to create complex html/pdf/Word documents using simple text markup. Download the css files from Zotero and you can format you’re references in any style you’d like. JabRef also has a small footprint and a google plugin, so you can get citations from the journals pretty easily. Also, all free!

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