There are plenty of questions asking about how exactly to cite certain things in certain citation styles. I tend to find these puzzling, as for me this is not something the author needs to care of, but something to be done automatically by BibTeX.

Now I am vaguely aware that some disciplines are not using LaTeX for their writing. I also know that there are citation tools outside LaTeX, but not quite how much these automate. This question however is about actual practise, not about what is possible. Are these tools as widely used as BibTeX in the TeX community or are the tools more a niche thing and people actually cite "by hand" on a regular basis? Is there a de facto standard?

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    "How do non-LaTeX users handle citations?" Fortitude, a lot of it.
    – user347489
    Aug 15, 2018 at 7:48
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    My coworkers: by hand, copy pasting what Google Scholar gives them as the right format. Aug 15, 2018 at 7:51
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    +1 As a longtime LaTeX user, I cannot imagine how people manage to write papers in Microsoft Word. Aug 16, 2018 at 7:38
  • 1
    They either use a citation manager or they cite "by heart" and copy paste citations. Then they have plenty of free time due to not having to fiddle with LateX code and "advocate" its use online.
    – Cape Code
    Sep 14, 2018 at 8:17

12 Answers 12


When working with non-LaTeX users, I've seen people use many different workflows for citation management. The answer mainly depends upon what workflow and software people use. Here's some things I saw:

  • EndNote. The EndNote web version had some nice features for sharing libraries across users. I used this in Grad School to collaboratively do a review of the literature. A downside is that the program requires a subscription.
  • Zotero. I use this when I am forced to write in Word. It has nice import features that can import citations based upon DOI or ISBN. As a plus, it is open source. I also think there is a web version, but we're not allowed to use at work due to security concerns.
  • Google Docs now has reference managers add-ons(Thank you Konrad Rudolph for catching this). I have not used this before. But, I have written many first drafts of papers.

More broadly, my non-LaTeX workflow current consists of drafting a document in Google Docs and including references as comments (e.g., Smith et al. 2018 would have a comment with the full citation details). Once the group has written the document, someone pulls it down to Word and then adds in the citations with Zotero. Zotero can then automatically format using the same .cls files as BibTeX.

In my own, limited, experience, non-LaTeX users often have the desire to automate their workflows using reference mangers.

Other programs and workflows:

  • SecretAgentMan reports that RefWorks makes nice workflows as well.
  • Ian suggested Citavi works well for him.
  • Formite suggested Papers.
  • 3
    There is another citation manager nobody has mentioned so far: Citavi. Almost all of my colleagues use Citavi and the corresponding Word add-in, only a handful use Bibtex (mostly those I converted).
    – Ian
    Aug 15, 2018 at 6:37
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    @Ian Citavi also supports the import of Bibtex-files. I am not sure about the other tools mentioned.
    – Sip
    Aug 15, 2018 at 9:44
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    FYI, Google Docs doesn’t have its own integrated reference manager. There is however an excellent piece of software, Paperpile, which provides Google Docs integration. I highly recommend it (including for your workflow). Aug 15, 2018 at 9:55
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    Citavi is not only a (very good) reference manager, but also a knowledge manager. It can store (and tag, categorize etc.) quotations, citations, own notes. This is very handy, as you can pull both that vaguely remembered quotation and your old comment to it, for example. (And Citavi, like other reference managers, imports from many sources/formats: RIS, Bibtex, DOI, ISBN... It doesn't import from ISSN however, but I think none of them does.)
    – ASR
    Sep 10, 2018 at 1:15
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    I use 'Papers' and rather like it.
    – Fomite
    Sep 13, 2018 at 20:24

It isn't exactly hard to do references by hand, in any word processing system, just boring and a bit fiddly at times. However, given the number of questions here on references it isn't like the citation managers aren't fiddly as well.

Having in the deep dark past written citation handling/numbering preprocessers/code for nroff, spinoff, and straight TeX (since LaTeX was too foofy for real scientists), those aren't that hard to do either with a modicum of programming skill. After the pain of writing the system in the first place, it is all gravy from there.

Even 30 years ago programs such as EndNote made it pretty easy to get a citation manager that integrated well with Word (plus or minus various perversions caused by Word itself). Nowadays there are more options, and it mostly comes down to finding a word processing system and citation manager that work together and that you will stick with for long enough to make it worthwhile.

That last part is key - after investing the time and energy to build up and learn a system that works for you, it is a pain to change. All of a sudden you move from grad school to a post-doc, and your advisor doesn't use the same tool set -- what now? Do you switch from LaTeX to Word (and the citation manager as well)? Or do you do all editing/revisions on paper? Once you have switched (for whatever reason) a few times, one might decide that doing it all by hand really isn't so bad.

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    “It isn't exactly hard to do references by hand” — just incredibly error-prone, as any manual, fiddly task tends to be. Aug 15, 2018 at 9:53
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    @KonradRudolph - Of course. That really has only been overcome with exporting the paper data directly from the online database. Before that, data entry into, say, EndNote, was manual and prone to error as well. But still, it just isn't that hard to do - it isn't like it will take days of effort.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 15, 2018 at 12:55
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    @JonCuster And then you have the irritation of the inaccuracies and inconsistencies of online databases, especially with non-English names. Certainly better than manual but still easily prone to error. I offer my apologies to anyone whose name was incorrectly rendered in a manuscript of mine that I didn't catch.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 15, 2018 at 18:58
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    @BryanKrause - back when I was a post-doc working with a number of grad students, they would get really irritated when the first thing I went through on a draft was the references, checking them for proper format. Eventually they learned that if they didn't get them right early on, they would never go through them at the very end when they wanted to submit the paper. (Although I think I managed to butcher my own name once in a reference with a typo - so it goes).
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 15, 2018 at 19:54

I (and many of my collegaues) use Mendeley as paper and citation manager. It has a plugin for Word, that makes it extremely easy to insert citations.

  • I wrote several papers and my phd with mendeley. It worked perfectly for me.
    – Iris
    Aug 15, 2018 at 13:08
  • I use Zotero for academic writing and it does 99% of the same things. Word plugins, ISBN/DOI lookups, Bibtex support, bibliography generation etc. I think Mendeley and Zotero are fairly identical in terms of features.
    – Gulliver
    Aug 20, 2018 at 8:54

Are these tools as widely used as BibTeX in the TeX community? ... Is there a de facto standard?

Small convenience sample: In my field, which is political science, "everybody" uses Word + Endnote.

Personally, I prefer markdown with a BibTeX library managed in Zotero and pandoc-citeproc to convert into Word, LaTeX, or whatever is needed.


Although I use LaTeX for nearly everything I write, I've used BibTeX only once, and that was more than 20 years ago. It was such a nuisance to use that I gave up on it and resumed doing bibliography entries by hand.

It is, of course, reasonable to conjecture that BibTeX has improved in the last 20 years and that I should therefore give it another chance. But I still see errors in other people's papers that look just like the errors that I had to fight BibTeX about long ago --- incorrect capitalization and garbled math symbols being the most common ones.

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    "It is, of course, reasonable to conjecture that BibTeX has improved in the last 20 years" - I really, really don't think so, and I use BibTeX for all my publications. BibTeX is one of the most painful pieces of software we have around, and you only really get past the pain and into the making of reasonable bibliographies by growing a very thick layer of skin and being very careful with the details. It is a damn shame that the software has not progressed in years (and if someone wants to say "but there is biblatex", try running it with revtex).
    – E.P.
    Aug 14, 2018 at 19:04
  • @E.P. I manage to keep a master bib file that can be used with bibtex or biblatex (subject to automated fiddling with date type fields), thus meaning I can use biblatex except with revtex. That helps a lot, and for the papers I write, the bilbiography is simple enough that bibtex isn't too painful
    – Chris H
    Aug 14, 2018 at 21:25
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    With every citation manager you have to check everything in the end but in my experience, more than 90% of all citations are correct even when imported automatically so it's still much less work than doing it by hand.
    – user64845
    Aug 14, 2018 at 21:33
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    @E.P. it has not improved because it has long been replaced by biblatex. Improvements are happening on biblatex/biber nowadays :)
    – FooBar
    Aug 15, 2018 at 7:14
  • @FooBar Great! I look forward to the day where those improvements allow those systems to be used with the standard journal classes (like revtex) that large swathes of authors are compelled to use.
    – E.P.
    Aug 15, 2018 at 8:44

I use Mendeley. It works very well with Kubuntu and LibreOffice.I've been using it for three years now, and it has improved a lot since then. The interface is very user-friendly. As far as I'm concerned right now it works almost perfectly and helps you keep your bibliographical sources organized. The only issue I experience now and then is when I'm using it to read and search heavy PDFs, it gets stuck and/or crashes. But it's probably due to my laptop's limitations.

  • not crashing in my macbook so either it's another OS version-related or computer limitations. It does have some minor bugs, but won't crash normally.
    – Scientist
    Sep 13, 2018 at 21:36

Endnote is very good, I can not only use export citation option on the webpage of articles and directly import them to my library, but also I can import my previous list of references in a certain format after putting some effort for software recognition. This effort is simply coding "first word is author, after the comma read as year etc. Then, you can export this bibliography in any format you want, this is crucial to apply for journals with different citation formats.

I also used Mendeley and it is also similar in that sense. However, I never used extensions or add-ins as my Microsoft Word or Internet Browser, (actually my computer) is already way slower than can be endured. Also sometimes hand-writing the reference is really easier , especially for internet sources but at that time it is, of course, not included in your library so sharing it with advisor becomes redundant in the end.

Latex is getting more and more famous, but they generally state that it is useful when you have so many tables/figures etc.


To answer the literal question of how non-X-users cope with the thing that X supposedly automates... :)

I do not use bib-tex or other pretended automations of bibliographic management dealies, mostly because many things (especially just a few decades older, in mathematics) do not necessarily fit into the one-size-fits-all mold.

Years before there was an internet, I did collect (on cards fitting on a Rolodex! Google it!) precise references to many important items.

Nowadays I have a flat file (that I edit in Emacs) with lightly-formatted versions of the details for a few thousand items.

True, my disregard for various officially-sanctioned citation styles allows me to "not care"... so I don't think at all about conversion to those styles.

More pointedly, I have a positive interest in certifying that the pointer to a reference is correct, especially in situations of historical issues. So I really don't care about format, but about information.

Format is not (high quality) information... Sure, format can help information, but not necessarily. :)

EDIT: manipulation of various flat files I usually do by Perl scripts, or for simpler things just bash. At least that way I have a better idea of "what I'm getting", as opposed to naively believing naive software megaliths. :)


I used LaTeX (with biber and biblatex) myself for my dissertation. However, in Social Sciences and Sociology it is uncommon if you want to publish in journals, proceedings and so forth. Word formats are the standard (which is imho rather painful). For reference management and knowledge management I use (and heartly recommend) Citavi, which is a powerful tool, if used the right way. I organize my literature, my reading, my excerpts and qutations in it and connect pdfs to the titles. So everything is at one place. With keywords and groups you can structure your library further (topics and projects for example).

The word plugin is where the real magic happens: I simply write my articles and can add/remove/edit references in the process. Even access quotations, excerpts and so on directly from word. The bibliography is created instantly and without any hassle. Citavi comes with a vast number of citing styles which can be searched and added. If you need individual styles, Citavi provides an editor where you can adapt existing styles or create your own from scratch.

The only drawbacks so far: it costs; it is only available for Windows / MS Word.


Based on my experience, in German-speaking countries, Citavi is very common. It supports reference management by being connected to a lot of library databases.

It has a plugin for word, but also plugins for browsers to automatically pick e.g. IBAN's on website or to reference Websites. You can also import BibTex-Files.

I never used the BibTex-Software so I cannot really tell you the difference.


There are some programs that make reference management easy for the non Latex user (biologists, cough cough). Mendeley, Papers, EndNote, Zotero, RefWorks. Usually you import the PDFs, configure or check the metadata, then you can add citations directly while you are writing the document in Microsoft Word. Then it will do any types of styles or formatting that you need automatically!

Also I heard that the standard reference stuff in Word isn't that bad.


I used EndNote extensively in academia. It's great for managing citations and allows you to store full pdfs, create tags, add notes. It also integrates well to Office suites like Word.

If you are a non-LaTex user, you are probably using Microsoft Word, as its pretty much the defacto standard in a lot of fields. If you are new to the field and are just writing a single/few papers, and don't plan to keep the citations around for future search, Word is going to be much simpler than using EndNote. Look under References > Citations % Bibliography > Manage Sources

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