Why I Don’t Use Citation Managers

It wasn’t until I tried using a citation manager that I realized that I am not a citation manager person.

No, I won’t apologize for my choices, or my opinions about citation managers. And I can honestly say that I made it to the end of my PhD without changing my mind.

One additional caveat: despite my anti-citation manager stance, I have no problem with people who use them! You do you! Everyone’s experience with them is different, and I 100% can accept that. Hopefully you can, too. Otherwise, I’m not sure why you’re here.

So, why don’t I use a citation manager? Read on to find out!

Black woman wearing dark glasses and a black turtleneck working on a computer at a table.

There are too many citation manager options

Honestly, I tried Zotero and I tried Mendeley. Neither of those did anything for me except raise my blood pressure (for different reasons).

The learning curve is (too) steep

It has been years since I last attempted to use a citation manager. At that time, I frequently experienced issues with what should have been a very basic, essential task of the software.

Whenever I imported a new PDF, the publication information was always wrong or incomplete. I would always have to fix it. It just wasn’t worth the extra effort in the end. I thought citation managers were supposed to make things easier, not more difficult.

Citation managers don’t align with my chaotic organizational methods

Yes, you read that right. The way I organize my PDFs on my computer is downright chaotic. I would love to meet someone for whom that is not the case (and ask them how they do it!).

The same goes for how I annotate and take notes from those PDFs, which citation managers also purport to facilitate.

If I think about it, I can track several distinct stages in my development as a researcher over the years.

First, I was adamant about printing out every article that I was exposed to. This is whether it be required reading for a course or a resource for a paper I was writing. I did this so that I could annotate by hand, both with highlighters and marginal notes. Books were peppered with sticky notes. This is a habit that I now wish I hadn’t developed. It was a huge burden to remove them when I returned them to the library.

The second stage involved moving (mostly) digital. I’ve never really come up with a reliable and easily navigable system of organizing the files on my computer.

Finally, we arrive at my dissertating days, which involved taking extensive notes from PDFs in Word documents. These notes are completely removed from the PDFs themselves. This has created even more chaos in my already lacking organizational system. All PDFs relating to my dissertation are organized alphabetically by last name.

That’s all well and good until I need to consult those articles for other, more specific reasons (like writing a lecture on houses from Attica).

This final stage of my approach to annotation worked well for me. This is because it helped me produce writing that could be used in the actual text of my dissertation.

Taking notes this way helps me make sense of what I’m reading, too. I often take direct quotes and add my own commentary to them as a way of working out what the author is saying. There are also times when I try to relate what the author is saying to other things I’ve read or have been thinking about.

Formatting citations makes me feel productive

Manually inserting and formatting citations may be time-consuming, but it can also be a low-stakes and (relatively) low-energy way of feeling productive when the last thing you want to do is write.

There were a lot of days where I really did not want to work on my dissertation.

Sometimes, I could convince myself to work on updating my footnotes or bibliography for a few minutes. Once I got started, though, those few minutes would turn into much longer stretches of productive work. I could churn out citations until the task was complete and everything was up to date again.

Manually formatting citations is also an easy thing to do while listening to your favorite playlist. This is something I absolutely cannot do if I am reading or writing which require more focused attention.

Also, you never have to worry if the formatting is correct or consistent because you did it yourself.

This can, however, also mean that sometimes the formatting is not correct or consistent.

But, hey, nobody’s perfect.

Now that you’ve heard from me, I want to hear from you: do you use a citation manager? Why or why not?

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One Reply to “Why I Don’t Use Citation Managers”

  1. I also don’t use citation managers and I also have all my PDFs in one folder, (almost) all [lastname]_[year]_[journal/book title].

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