Must-have Research Software
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I have decided to start my blog series with a helpful post, diving right into tips & tricks of doing research. This week’s topic: software that every graduate student should have. A research management software. To my surprise, very few graduate students use any kind of software to keep track of references for their papers/theses. A well organized library of papers, books and presentations is an absolute must-have! I don’t remember how life (aka research) was before I used research management software. And yes, I’m both young enough to not know the good ol’ days of having piles of photocopied articles on a desk, and so old that I’m forced to use sentences such as “I don’t remember how life was before …” For those of you that don’t have research management software and just have endless folders/files that you have to repeatedly go through when you need to collect references, this is an article for you.

Every reference management software shares one goal: collect a searchable and indexable database of every paper you would want to have. Imagine having to write a research article and you need to find a paper that explains a certain topic but you don’t remember the author, title, journal etc. This is where these softwares find that particular article with you, you search for a keyword or a topic, quickly browse through the papers and within 10s you’ll find that one paper hidden in your database of 505 papers. Piece of cake, right? Anyone with interest in programming and databases can create such software in a day (yes, we engineers do this when we’re having a slow day or when there’s nothing on the telly). However, who has the time to create an advanced user-friendly environment that can access online repositories and have hundred other features? For this reason we turn to readily available software.


A Mac-only reference manager, this is my personal favorite. I have been using Papers since it was first released in 2007. Papers has multiple benefits,

  • Excellent user interface
  • Reads metadata of pdf you already have and automatically collects title, authors, journal etc.
  • Supports multiple online repositories that can be searched to find new papers or match a paper in library with up-to-date details. Just to name few repositories available: Web of Science, Google Scholar, IEEE Xplore, Pub Med, arXiv, Amazon Books etc.
  • Cover flow can be used to quickly screen your papers if you are looking for a certain paper that you remember for how it “looked”

It has some minor faults but none so significant that I’ve considered switching to another software. It’s not free, but it’s cheap considering that students get 40% discount if you email them a picture of your student ID. I know of labs in US that have Papers available for every student free of charge, sadly not all labs do that.

If you are a mac user, give Papers a try. For windows users, keep on reading.


Some say this is the best reference management software available. It might well be. I know that many windows users use Mendelay, understandably since it seems to be one of the best reference managers available. If I was starting my academic career then I would use Menedelay and not Papers. Mendelay can do almost everything that Papers does and it has certain features that are not available in Papers,

  • It’s free up to some point
  • Cross platform (Windows, Mac, Linux)
  • Online synching; if your lab computer has Windows and you have a Mac at home then you can synch the database and not worry about a paper you only have on either machines. Brilliant!

There are other softwares available (see list) but these are the main candidates. If you have not used reference management software before, try it and I’ll guarantee you’ll never go back.

6 thoughts on “Must-have Research Software

  1. Not only EndNote is free for McGill students, they also have Mac and Windows versions available. If you leave your library file and the PDFs on a dropbox folder, you can use the same library seamlessly from a Mac and a PC. It is a good option as well!


  2. Great article – I’m a big fan of Mendeley personally, I work in a couple of different places and love that it can sync everything across all my computers. I wish that more people told undergraduates about reference management software – would make their lives so much easier.


  3. Nice to see an EndNote user here! You are one of the few that I know that use EndNote today, it’s too expensive for students to pay for it and few labs (that I know of) do purchase licenses for students to use. When I was starting my masters I wanted to try EndNote but there were no campus/lab licenses available so I went for Papers.


  4. When I was an undergrad, life was “piles of photocopied articles on my desk”. Same thing during my MSc. (Erm, I think I just dated myself).
    But now, as a PhD candidate, EndNote is my new best friend (non-Mac user here!


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