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Our Review of the Top Free Citation Generators

Over the course of conducting and writing about research, managing your references can become an overwhelming part of academic writing. Beyond management, even finding sources that are pertinent to your research can often be a tricky task—especially if you're researching a topic that hasn't had a lot of attention or is relatively new.

However, using software to help keep track of the sources you've used in your research and writing, along with automatic generation of a bibliography or references page, can help streamline the process significantly. Some of these programs also offer extended online communities, cloud storage, and spaces to share your research with others, as well as the opportunity to explore potential sources others have used when researching a similar topic to yours.

Keeping in mind that the free resources that are available vary in their features offered and the extent you can use them for your citation management needs, here's our review of the top free online citation generators available for academic researchers and writers. We've included links and a brief overview of what each does for both free and subscription-based citation and source management assistance.


Zotero is a free, open-source reference manager and research tool that can be accessed both online as a web service and offline on your personal device (laptop, phone, tablet, etc.). It allows users to collect, organize, analyze and share research. You can also use it to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references. Another great feature is you can download it as a plugin that senses when you are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, and then automatically extract the complete bibliographic reference for it.

As a citation generator, Zotero will instantly create references and bibliographies to be placed directly into Word, LibreOffice, and Google Docs. There is currently support for 9,000 citation styles (I wasn't even aware there were this many styles!) and you can format your work to match any style guide or publication.

As a citation generator, Zotero will instantly create references and bibliographies to be placed directly into Word, LibreOffice, and Google Docs.
As a citation generator, Zotero will instantly create references and bibliographies to be placed directly into Word, LibreOffice, and Google Docs.

Another great thing about Zotero is that it's a complete online community for researchers. Users can connect with other researchers working on similar projects and browse through other researchers' CVs and shared libraries for a quick view of their work and interests.

According to its website:

Zotero is a project of the Corporation for Digital Scholarship, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of software and services for researchers and cultural heritage institutions. It was created at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University with initial funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the United States Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


Mendeley is a free reference manager and academic social network that allows users to organize their research, collaborate with others online, and discover the latest research available on any topic. With one simple download, users will be able to automatically generate bibliographies, collaborate easily with other researchers online, import papers from other research software, find relevant papers based on current reading, and access papers from anywhere online. The download is available for both iOS and Android.

Also available for download is Mendeley Cite. Mendeley Cite is a Microsoft Word add-in that speeds up the process of referencing when writing, allowing researchers to quickly insert references from their Mendeley library directly into their Word document. It can be used without having Mendeley Desktop open or even installed if your library is synced to Mendeley cloud, allowing you to insert individual or multiple references and automatically create a bibliography from the citations you've inserted.

According to the website, here are some of the Mendeley Cite features:

  • Once users sign in to Mendeley Cite, their Mendeley library is downloaded from the cloud, so they don't need to have Mendeley Desktop open or even installed to use it.
  • Users can search for references in their Mendeley library and insert them easily into the document they're working on.
  • Users can select and insert individual or multiple references at once.
  • Users can create a bibliography of all the references cited.
  • Users can change the style to any preferred citation style.


If you don't want to have to download any apps or programs, KnighCite is a good option. KnightCite is an online citation generator service created in 2004 and provided by the Hekman Library of Calvin College. Although it's offered by Calvin University, it is available to both students and nonstudents.

KnightCite's citation formatting styles offered, at present, are: Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA), or Chicago Manual of Style. Note that KnightCite does not generate footnotes or in-text citations. The citation formatting features can be used without sifting through advertising, which makes it preferable to other online generators, although users will have to register on the site to have the option of saving all of their citations or creating multiple bibliographies.

Here are a few of the key features offered:

  • Citation generation for print or electronic resources, including sacred texts, a webpage or blog, art or photographs, cartoons, advertisements, personal interviews, musical compositions, sound recordings and more.
  • Users may save all of their citations for a given project and instantly alphabetize or edit them. Citations in one bibliography can be copied into another.
  • When a bibliography is complete, the program can export it into an rtf file or word document with the appropriate format. It will be instantly ready to print.
  • Registered users can save citations and organize them into multiple papers.

Citation Builder

Citation Builder is another university created tool—this time coming from North Carolina State University Libraries. It's simple to use and is web-based, allowing users to choose between MLA, APA, Chicago and CSE/CBE formatting styles.

Citation Builder is simple to use and is web-based, allowing users to choose between MLA, APA, Chicago and CSE/CBE formatting styles.
Citation Builder is simple to use and is web-based, allowing users to choose between MLA, APA, Chicago and CSE/CBE formatting styles.

A simple drop-down menu asks if you the citation you're generating is a book, chapter or essay, magazine article, newspaper article, scholarly journal article, or website. You can then choose the formatting style and immediately generate the citation for print or digital sources.

Citation Machine

Citation Machine is a web-based citation generator allowing citation generation for APA, MLA and Chicago formatting styles. While the website is free to use, there are multiple advertisements that will pop up, including advertisements to purchase Citation Machine Plus for a 3-day free trial, and $9.95 per month afterwards. With this purchase, users can expect the following features:

  • Suggestions to improve your writing style, grammar and sentence structure
  • Checks for unintentional plagiarism
  • Add a bibliography and citations directly to your paper
  • Quickly and accurately create citations from multiple styles and source types

If you don't want to purchase the premium features, you can still use the website to add a bibliography and citations directly to your paper. The website features an auto-fill mode, where users can input the source's title, author, and/or ISBN and have the rest of the information filled in automatically by the website.

Microsoft Word

If you use Microsoft Word, you already have a powerful citation generator option that will easily plug into the document you're creating. This generator creates in-text citations, as well as a bibliography, works cited, or reference page to include at the end of your essay, article, thesis, or dissertation. It's really one of the easiest ways to manage your sources while working on an academic writing assignment, although it doesn't offer some of the extended networking and crowd-sourced data provided by software like Zotero and Mendeley.

If you choose to go this route for your citation management, here's a step-by-step tutorial on how to use Microsoft Word's References tool for smarter academic writing. It will guide you through the process of creating citations and generating a bibliography once you've entered your sources.

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