September 2019
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Minsun Kim, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA

Plagiarism is a relatively long-studied area in college writing research tracing back to the mid-1980s (Pecorari & Petrić, 2014). Within second language writing, plagiarism is a more complicated and demanding issue in multilingual students’ laboring with English (Pennycook, 2016). Bloch (2012) emphasizes the importance of investigating how and when the second language writers’ use of inappropriate textual borrowing happens, resulting in their loss of voice. In teaching multilingual students source text use, I found the use of citation tools very effective as a pedagogical approach to prevent plagiarism because the students I have worked with often mentioned a lack of knowledge or aid in their research process and the frustrations they had with assignments. The students reported situations when they were unable to complete assignments on their own or had no idea how to do appropriate textual borrowings (Kim, 2017). In addition to educating multilingual students about plagiarism, it’s important to provide them with the necessary knowledge and tools to guide them away from plagiarism in their writing.

Teaching students how to use citation management tools enables them to approach their writing and research as a process. Citation tools help student writers keep track of sources by gathering publication information and creating reference lists in a chosen style with a single click. In this article, I discuss the pros and cons of different web-based reference tools and share tips on how to teach student writers new ways to utilize them in their research process. This will ultimately help teachers make an informed decision in choosing the right tool for their classrooms and students.

Basics of Citation Tools

There are various citation tools available on the market (also called reference managers or bibliographic management tools). The most common examples include EndNote, Mendeley, RefWorks, and Zotero. These citation managers help students organize, manage, and format citations for their research. In detail, the tools all import bibliographic data from various sources, including library catalogues, databases (ProQuest, JSTOR, etc.), websites, or PDFs; add formatted citations into papers; and create bibliographies in different styles, such as in the style of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Modern Language Association (MLA), and the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) . They output auto-formatted references as well as in-text citations. Students can also organize citations using folders and topics while annotating such citations or PDFs. They can eventually build their own research collections.

Functionality of Citation Tools

Their official websites provide more detailed information on each tool, and the citation tool comparison table (Table 1) highlights their major features. For instance, EndNote was one of the first citation managers available on the market. Mendeley is “a free reference manager” with an additional “academic social network.” RefWorks is a “web-based commercial” reference manager. Zotero is a “free, open-source reference management software” available to everyone at no cost.

Table 1. Functionality and Features Table

Tips for Teaching the Tools

Among the four tools, EndNote and RefWorks are not free for everyone, unlike Mendeley and Zotero, but many schools support their affiliates by purchasing campus-wide subscriptions to the services. For instance, schools such as Duke and NYU provide detailed information on these citation tools through their libraries and support free access to EndNote and RefWorks as part of their support for students and faculty research. Thus, I suggest instructors and teachers check with their school libraries about institutional support for these citation tools.

When first introducing these tools to students, I recommend official tutorial videos on YouTube, which explain step-by-step how to quickly navigate through the basic features of each tool. These free training recordings are usually about 5 minutes long and very effective in pinpointing basics for beginners. In a writing classroom, I advise to first conduct an annotated bibliography assignment integrated with a chosen citation tool to prepare for a longer, more complicated research-based assignment that usually needs several sources. This should eventually help student writers get accustomed to a chosen citation tool and make it easier to simultaneously work with numerous sources.

Which Tool to Choose?

These citation tools share similar features and functions, so the best tool for your students depends on their needs and educational contexts. For instance, besides RefWorks with web access only, other tools’ access types are desktop application with basic or full web versions for syncing and sharing sources. These desktop applications also enable users to work offline. EndNote, Mendeley, and RefWorks have mobile apps, such as EndNote’s iOS application for iPad users. They all support different bibliographic styles, including the most commonly used ones such as APA and MLA. They also support word processor integration, which allows academic writers to sync sources while working on papers with MS Word, Google Docs, and so on. This feature gives writers the ability to cite while they write.

Endnote’s advanced features and custom options/preferences not found in other tools may be complicated, making it not suitable for beginners. Because of its web access only, RefWorks can be a good choice when students want to work on multiple networks, while other tools are a better choice when working with a few major computers or laptops with the citation database stored locally. However, one caveat is that teachers need to advise students to adhere to one citation tool for the duration of a research paper or project, because frequent exporting and importing is likely to add more mistakes or errors in references, such as missing or incomplete citations.

Academic Writers and Citation Tools

For more serious academic writers, including graduate students, I recommend Mendeley or RefWorks, supported by Elsevier and ProQuest, respectively. These information and analytics companies are two of the world’s major providers of scientific information, and they run numerous academic journals in different fields. One of the graduate students I worked with showed great satisfaction with Mendeley because many of the journals where she published or wished to publish were run by Elsevier. She noted different scientific journals now require different reference formatting at submission, which is often different from APA or MLA. The reference style used by each specific journal will be applied to the manuscript with a single click when using a citation tool such as Mendeley. Supported by their vast academic databases, the search functions of Mendeley and RefWorks make it easy to find academic sources, especially from reputable journals. By using keywords and authors, students can search for related sources for their research. Mendeley further gives students personalized suggestions for academic articles based on their search history. Mendeley also has an interesting feature called “Mendeley Stats,” which helps you assess your impact as a researcher. It is useful for graduate students who want to become more productive writers. They provide a detailed breakdown of your publication information, including views, citations of your journal article, and other related trends and data.

Quick Bibliography Tool

For a simple and quick bibliography, ZoteroBib can be a great option as a reliable citation machine. Powered by the same technology behind Zotero, ZoteroBib lets students instantly generate a bibliography, regardless of device. It does not require creating an account or installing any software or plugin. Numerous citation machines are out there on the market, but many of them are limited with countless errors. Compared with them, ZoteroBib is a free, easy to use, precise tool. Students simply paste the URL (title, DOI, USBN, etc.) of their source into the ZoteroBib search box and click “Cite” after choosing a citation style. The manual editor also allows students to enter the source data by hand, which I recommend for error-free bibliographies. However, even with ZoteroBib, students should have basic knowledge on their chosen style’s guidelines, which leads to fewer errors.


The citation managers discussed here can do much of the work of formatting references and creating citations for our student writers with a single click. They give students the power to engage with and manage their research data in a systematic manner. However, citation styles supported by these tools do change periodically, and it may take time for these changes to be updated in their systems. Therefore, I advise you ask your students to double check their citations against the chosen style and to use these citation tools responsibly.


Bloch, J. (2012). Plagiarism, intellectual property and the teaching of L2 writing. Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Kim, M. (2017). Assessing multilingual students’ perceptions on plagiarism: Recapturing their voices while avoiding plagiarism. Second Language Writing Symposium. Bangkok, Thailand.

Pecorari, D., & Petrić, B. (2014). Plagiarism in second-language writing. Language Teaching, 47(3), 269–302. doi:10.1017/S0261444814000056

Pennycook, A. (2016). Reflecting on borrowed words. TESOL Quarterly, 50, 480–482.

Minsun Kim holds a PhD in English from Purdue University. She has taught second language writing in English for more than 10 years at Purdue and Miami University, Ohio. Her research interests include second language writing with a focus on multilingual and multicultural contexts.
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