From Evidence to Scholarship

Transforming Undergraduate Student Research in the Digital Age

Evaluation of Mobile Apps for Citation & Document Management

Increasingly students are using mobile devices for their academic work, but they are unsure of the best apps and workflows. The following evaluation describes the criteria for citation & document management, a comparison of EndNote and Zotero, a discussion of document workflows, and recommendations for next steps.


Based on the 2013 Mobile Device Survey, several criteria for citation & document management apps were identified:

  • Cross platform
  • Easy to get started
  • Mobile support for iOS and Android
  • Syncing between desktop, web, and mobile platforms
  • Easy to use with common content sources (web, Moodle, JSTOR, etc.)
  • Easy to incorporate into workflow for reading, annotating, saving & citing
  • Good document management
  • Support for diverse content types, in addition to text
  • Easy to save sources as you work
  • Various citation formats, with Chicago, APA, and MLA being the most prevalent
  • Easy integration with common word processors (including LaTex!)
  • Robust enough for a senior thesis


Numerous citation generators are available on the web (SUNY Albany Libraries has a good list) but many of them have drawbacks such as cost, advertisements, relatively few content source types, or limited citation formats. Ultimately we settled on EndNote and Zotero as the two most promising, full-featured systems to evaluate. Details for each evaluation are included below:

  • EndNote
  • Zotero

EndNote and Zotero offer very similar functionality: gathering materials, organizing them, and inserting citations into documents. Both offer a stand-alone client and a web version with a certain amount of free storage, and both support syncing via the web account. EndNote has an iPad app, but Zotero has a mobile web version that accomplishes much the same tasks and is cross-platform.

Ultimately the distinguishing feature is that Zotero is easy to use and EndNote is not. Zotero is particularly easy for getting started quickly and gathering sources as students browse the catalog, databases, and the web.

Document Management Workflows

The ideal workflow would include integration with preferred apps for reading and annotating. Two common workflows we can anticipate for students are:

Course reserves

  1. download electronic reserves through Moodle
  2. import citation data and PDFs into Zotero library
  3. open PDFs in reader of choice
  4. synchronize to save annotated PDFs in the Zotero library

This scenario would require some enhancements to our electronic reserves software to present citation data in a format easily consumed by Zotero. Additionally, we need to develop standardized practices for scanning readings and converting them to text, in anticipation that students will read them on an electronic device. Some archived e-reserves may need to be rescanned.

Independent research

  1. search via the Library catalog, databases, and websites
  2. as students work, save resources and citation data to Zotero
  3. open PDFs in reader of choice
  4. synchronize to save annotated PDFs in the Zotero library

This scenario takes advantage of one of Zotero’s strengths, which is the ease of collecting sources and citation data while you research. It would also help with the oft’ seen problem of not being able to find the reference when students are putting the finishing touches on their papers.

Though students would initially gather resources in different ways, both scenarios hinge on easy synchronizing between the Zotero library and PDF reader. Unfortunately, Zotero doesn’t automate the syncing operation (neither does EndNote).

ZotFile is a third-party Zotero add-on that attempts to solve this problem. With ZotFile, the user can direct Zotero to store downloaded files in a folder that is synchronized with their PDF reader. A typical scenario would be to use Dropbox, which synchronizes with many different readers. ZotFile looks promising though it is a little tricky to set up.

  1. Lacking automated synchronization, an alternative strategy would be to do it manually, which would look like this:
  2. locate reading
  3. save citation data to Zotero
  4. download PDF to computer and/or tablet
  5. read PDF in annotation software of choice
  6. attach annotated file to Zotero citation data
  7. extract the annotations to store in your Zotero library (optional)

Next Steps

he Library and CIS could take several concrete steps to facilitate the use of mobile devices for student coursework and research:

  1. Consider additional citation management solutions such as BookEndz, Mendeley, and Papers, all of which have some faculty proponents
  2. Investigate a general-purpose tool like Evernote, which is easy to use, widely adopted, and has a thriving developer community
  3. Evaluate the potential for Reed to develop Zotero or Evernote add-ons that would optimize them for our particular student needs
  4. Further refine Zotero workflow recommendations, especially to incorporate third-party solutions like ZotPad and apps for Android and iOS
  5. Develop enhancements to our e-Reserves software to integrate with mobile and cloud-based solutions
  6. Redefine our electronic reserves workflow to improve scanning quality and provide OCR for all texts
  7. Support students who aren’t able to afford a tablet device, either through equipment loans or financial subsidy of a tablet purchase
  8. Improve wireless coverage to eliminate blackout areas, particularly in residence halls and study spaces.