Referencing headaches? There’s an app for that

In just under a year, RefME, a UK-built online tool that takes the sweat out of citations, has attracted almost a million users

July 2, 2015
Librarians with piles of books
Source: Getty
Referencing made easy: RefME is gaining an average of 10,000 users a day

Compiling references and bibliographies has long been a time-consuming bugbear for academics and students alike: a swift comedown after the relief of finishing a paper.

It is therefore not surprising that a free online tool, RefME, that claims to make the process dramatically quicker and easier has been downloaded by nearly 1 million users around the world.

But what is more startling is the pace of RefME’s growth since it was released last September. It is currently gaining an average of 10,000 users a day, and expectations are that it will add 5 million more in the next 12 to 18 months.

The secret of its success appears to lie in its simplicity. Rather than having to write citations, academics and students can use a mobile app to simply scan the barcode of the book or journal that they are reading. The app instantly creates a reference, in any one of over 7,500 styles that the user might choose.

The tool also has the capability to create references for a much wider range of research materials, such as websites and YouTube videos.

RefME can also recommend other pieces of work that users might find useful, based on the citations they have created and the reading history of users with similar interests.

RefME has developed from an early version of the app created by co-founder Tom Hatton, who was frustrated by referencing software when he was studying music and history of art at Oxford Brookes University.

He is now chief executive of the London-based firm, which claims to be growing faster than both Twitter and Pinterest did in their first year of trading.

The 25-year-old said that user feedback showed that RefME is proving to be a “lifesaver”.

“It’s clearly had a hugely positive impact on students’ research behaviour,” Mr Hatton said. “It allows them to focus on doing their work more efficiently. Referencing, instead of being a primary nag, is a secondary action which is automated and done for you.”

The next step in RefME’s development is to focus on its relationship with universities and publishers.

At the American Library Association conference, held in San Francisco between 25 and 30 June, the company launched RefME Institute, aimed at libraries and universities. For a “one-off nominal set-up fee”, members receive teaching materials, referencing training and product support.

In the longer term, Mr Hatton believes that the detailed data that RefME collects on readership habits could prove valuable to libraries, to guide purchasing decisions, and to publishers, to help determine their editorial plans.

“There are all kinds of amazing insights from citation data and I can’t wait for us to start building on top of that type of data and providing that back to institutes,” said Mr Hatton. “It will only help them to better understand their students.”

At the moment, all the personal data that the app collects is kept confidential, with only high-level readership information being shared with universities and publishers.

But if personal information were to be shared, the data could potentially be used by institutions for student retention: for example, to determine if learners were keeping up with their reading lists.

Mr Hatton said that this is something that the company currently has “no intention” of doing.

“If we could see a real educational purpose to it, we would explore it,” he said. “But right now it is not something we do.”


Donal Bradley, currently Lee-Lucas professor of experimental physics, director of the Centre for Plastic Electronics and vice-provost for research at Imperial College London, has been appointed head of the mathematical, physical and life sciences division at the University of Oxford. He takes up his position in September.

The University of Lincoln has named Martin Lear to the post of senior lecturer in its School of Chemistry. He arrives from Tohoku University in Japan.

Fiona Sandford has been named chair of court at the University of Stirling. Ms Sandford, who takes up her position in August, has held senior positions at University College London and the London School of Economics, where she was director of the careers services for eight years.

James Edmunds has joined Bucks New University as head of the academic department for travel and aviation. He joins from the University of West London and will take up his role in September.

Leeds Beckett University has announced the appointment of John Craig as head of the School of Social, Psychological and Communication Sciences. He joins the university from the Higher Education Academy.

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Reader's comments (1)

This looks to be a useful tool for students. But unless students understand the purpose of referencing and how to properly use citations all that lecturers will get to mark is prettier rubbish.