When you are writing your first publication, you may not be aware of how much work it is to format your references to match the style of the journal. Every journal has its own requirements, such as: titles in italics, journal names in bold, journal names abbreviated or full, the number of authors listed if more than 5 or 7 or 10… Apart from the right format of the references in the reference list, the references also need to have the right format in the text. This usually comes down to the name of the first author and the year of publication, or simply a number. In addition, you need to keep track of the references in the text and make sure they show up in the right order in your reference list, which can either be alphabetically or in order of appearance.
Once you have actually gone through the process of submitting a manuscript for publication and received a rejection (about 90% of papers get rejected at first submission) you need to reformat your references to match the style of the next journal. A reference management program will make your life a lot easier, with very little effort your references are all formatted correctly in the text as well as in the reference list, and are all in the correct order. No need to waste hours on formatting and reformatting, or risk missing formatting some of the references. If you start using a reference manager program the day you start your research it will be a breeze to format the references of all your manuscripts.
Choosing reference management software
To help you choose the reference management software that is right for you there are many websites providing comparisons. The most extensive is probably a Wikipedia website which compares about 30 options based on various criteria. If you are a student or non-professional user and are looking for free software Mendeley, Bibme, or Zotero may do just fine. Just be aware that the free programs may have a limited number of styles available or a limited number of references that can be stored. I tried Mendeley at the request of a client and found it easy to use. Mendeley let me download various journal styles and I was able to share the database with the client online.
If you work at a research institute, the institute usually provides the software for one of the commercial programs such as Endnote or RefWorks, or you can obtain one with a discount. The first commercially available reference manager software, Reference Manager, has unfortunately recently been discontinued and is no longer supported. Your Reference Manager database can however easily be imported into another program, such as Endnote. The commercial programs have thousands of styles available, may allow sharing the reference database with your colleagues so you can work on a publication together, and have many other useful features. As there is not one superior program, the choice of reference management software depends on your needs, preference, and budget. They have one feature in common: they will all save you lots of time.