A Tale of Two Citation Tools

I recently heard a presentation at ALA Annual about innovation in an age of limits. In the presentation one of the presenters discussed the citation tool EasyBib and how it was created by high school students. This got me interested in how different organizations go about creating solutions for the same problem. Compare the two about statements from notable citation companies RefWorks and EasyBib:


“Founded in 2001 by a team of experts in the field of bibliographic database management, RefWorks is dedicated to providing a high quality web-based research management, writing and collaboration tool for the academic, government and corporate research communities. Used daily by thousands of researchers in over 900 organizations globally, RefWorks supports hundreds of online databases and output styles covering a broad range of subject areas. RefWorks collaborates with some of the world’s most prestigious online information service providers including ProQuest, BioOne, EBSCO, Elsevier, HighWire, H.W. Wilson, ISI, OCLC, Ovid and Serial Solutions, to name a few.”

What comes to mind when you read that description? It sounds very serious and scholarly. They use words like “prestigious” and “experts.” This product seems designed for people who value quality, organization, and serious research. Now read the description of EasyBib:


“When we (Neal and Darshan) were in high school, we each had a huge writing assignment. We found that the most tedious part of our paper wasn’t the writing or the researching, but the bibliography itself. We had to constantly refer to our citation guides to figure out how to cite sources and where to put the periods, commas, and underlines.

Needless to say, we thought this would be a perfect application for the Web. After a few months of figuring out all the bibliography rules (Neal) and coding the site (Darshan), the first version of EasyBib launched in February 2001.

Eight years later, EasyBib is now the largest online bibliography site on the Web, visited by millions of students per month. We’ve expanded our team with some of the smartest people out there, and are going to continue building products that make life easier, faster, and better for our users.”

This description on the other hand sounds a lot less serious. This product was not created by a “team of experts.” It was created by a couple of high school kids who were annoyed with having to create a bibliography. The reason they created it is because the wanted to “make life easier, faster, and better.” That’s a great mission to have.

Looking at both of these companies they are very different, but they are trying to solve the same problem. One company sells subscriptions directly to researchers or institutions. The other company has a freemium model that allows students to create MLA citations for free, but also has paid versions with additional bells and whistles. It’s important to recognize that the way these companies solve the problem of citations appeals to different sorts of people. They both work well, but in very different ways.

My colleague Sarah, raves about RefWorks, but she is a serious researcher. And that it seems, is the market that RefWorks attracts. Faculty, grad students, researchers, anyone who is generating serious research would find RefWorks incredibly useful. Undergrads though are not serious researchers. They need to do some exploration and research, but they’re not going to be saving citations for another scholarly paper that they want to get published. They want to easily finish their bibliography with the least amount of hassle. Hence, whenever I ask what students use to do their citations in information literacy sessions, I always hear several students mention EasyBib.

In order to innovate as librarians, we must first look around and ask “what are the problems that our users need to have solved?” In this case it was the problem of citations. These problems that we identify are the opportunities for innovation. Then, we have to be careful while designing the solution and take into account our audience. Are we designing it for librarians and faculty (RefWorks)? Or are we designing it for undergraduate students (EasyBib)? EasyBib was designed by high school students. Perhaps our users should be intimately involved in the design and creation of new library services. Who knows, maybe they could even get academic credit for it…


Andy Burkhardt


  1. EasyBib is definitely popular among undergrads for the reasons you bring up. And it’s a fantastic idea to get more undergrads involved in designing library services.

    I still think full-fledged tools like RefWorks can be useful for undergraduates, particularly those who have to complete long senior research projects or hope to go on to graduate school. Of course, if they go on to a grad school that uses EndNote, experience using Refworks will only get them so far.

    I started using Mendeley a few years ago when I was still an undergrad. The big advantage of this program (or Zotero) is that it’s not tied to a specific institution, so I’ve used it at 2 universities and continue to use it as a hospital librarian.

    I’d be curious to hear (non-library-inclined) undergraduate opinions on Mendeley. I think of it as somewhere between lightweight options like EasyBib and the complex programs like Refworks.

  2. Sarah, I do agree that RefWorks can be useful for undergrads at some point. We have students who have to do a huge lit review for one assignment and a number of them find RefWorks really useful keeping all their stuff organized.

    I like your idea though of something like Zotero or Mendeley being a intermediary between the robustness of RefWorks and the quick and easiness of EasyBib. I think as librarians, we are often trying to find that balance between what we’re trying to teach students and what students are actually doing.

    And I actually hadn’t heard of Mendeley before, so now I’m gonna check it out. Thanks!

  3. I completely agree that as librarians we’re often trying to find the sweet spot between our research ideals and actual student/user behavior. And as a hospital librarian, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with this gap because I’m well aware of the very important work my users are doing when they’re *not* searching for articles.

    @MendeleyTips, as you might guess, posts tips for using Mendeley. I found the “Mendeley Minute” videos through there, and have found them useful for introducing librarians & library users alike to the software.

    Happy experimenting!

  4. The only problem I see with Zotero & Mendeley is that both require a download which one cannot often do on campus computers.

    Students can access Refworks from our library website and EasyBib is available free online, with the EasyBib app and now there is an EasyBib Google Toolbar. Refworks has a toolbar also called Grab-it, but it also requires a download so that feature is not useful for our patrons.

    I agree with the original post. If you’re going to use it for the basic undergrad paper, EasyBib is a fine thing. In fact, the free options on EasyBib are becoming better. EasyBib also offers many Information Literacy teaching tools like a Website Evaluation Guide, so it is evolving into something much more useful to all players.

    If you want/need more in-depth coverage, and you have access to Refworks might be a little bit better. It’s just, really, a matter of preference.

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