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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2009

[Board accepted]

RefWorks in Three Steps: Undergraduate Team Bibliographies

Phil Yorke-Barber
Liaison Librarian

Cristina Ghiculescu
Liaison Librarian

Gisela Possin
Liaison Librarian

Dorothy Hill Physical Sciences & Engineering Library
University of Queensland
Queensland, Australia

Copyright 2009, Phil Yorke-Barber, Cristina Ghiculescu, and Gisela Possin. Used with permission.


RefWorks is ideally suited for undergraduate students with team-based research projects as part of their course assessment. The Dorothy Hill Physical Sciences and Engineering Library at the University of Queensland taught students from three engineering courses how to use RefWorks to manage project references and to create team-based bibliographies. One team member created the account, all collected references, and one created the bibliography. In-text citations were done manually. Students could immediately see the relevance of RefWorks in the library class when they began finding information and creating the bibliography for their projects. Despite the far from perfect bibliographies produced, librarians are optimistic that with a few changes to the teaching of RefWorks, students' referencing skills can be substantially improved.


This paper reports on the use of RefWorks for undergraduate engineering students with team-based research projects. Librarians from the Dorothy Hill Physical Sciences at the University of Queensland instructed students in using RefWorks to manage their team references and to create a bibliography. The courses were a compulsory first-year engineering course and two third-year courses. Each team nominated a member to be responsible for creating the RefWorks account; all members added references and the final bibliography in the Harvard style was created by the nominated member. Ramsden wrote that from the students' point of view, "assessment always defines the actual curriculum" (2003). Finding quality resources and referencing those resources correctly should improve assignment marks and this was the carrot used by librarians to engage students' interest.

The University of Queensland Library already supported EndNote software, but in 2007 acquired site-wide access to the web-based, easier-to-learn RefWorks. McGrath (2005) wrote that it is unlikely all undergraduate students would be willing to invest a lot of time in learning how to use referencing software; RefWorks can be used to teach undergraduates good referencing habits and to simplify production of team project bibliographies. Some of the tedium of manual referencing can be relieved by using referencing software, enabling students to focus on understanding why and when to cite (Kessler & Van Ullen 2005). Our goal is to improve the standard of student bibliographies and to encourage students to manage their references from the start of their courses, and of course, to avoid plagiarism.

What We Did: RefWorks for Engineering Team Projects

Yu & Sullivan (2006) wrote that one of the core responsibilities of academic librarians is to help university students develop information literacy skills. This includes learning to reference. While Yu and Sullivan examined the content of student bibliographies, our goal was to use RefWorks to facilitate the management of team bibliographies. The three undergraduate engineering courses all have a team research project and include a compulsory library information skills workshop. For these three courses our goal was to integrate referencing with the information finding process. The workshops aimed at accomplishing three tasks:

  1. Find information e.g., articles and books, using databases such as Scopus, Compendex, and the library catalogue. Once students had found a reference they were asked to leave the browser window open to facilitate later export of the reference to RefWorks.
  2. Create a Refworks library/account. Each team was asked to nominate a member to be responsible for the RefWorks account. This person created the account using prescribed naming conventions given on the whiteboard. The customised referencing guides produced for the three courses also gave this information. All team members then exported references to the same account.
  3. Generate a bibliography. The student who registered was also responsible for collating the final project team bibliography.

The customised referencing guides included screen graphics explaining export from the most relevant databases, e.g., Scopus and Compendex. We hoped to encourage students to use scholarly research databases but also mentioned Google Scholar as an appropriate information source. The guide included details on using RefGrab-It, the plug-in for exporting web sites to RefWorks. We knew that first-year students would embrace this tool and regret that time constraints prevented us from demonstrating RefGrab-It in the workshops. The duration of training sessions varied from one to one-and-a-half hours. As well as a full page of in-text citation examples in the Harvard style, the customised referencing guides included instruction on:

Lack of time prevented us from covering the in-text citation plug-in, Write-N-Cite. We pointed out that there was more to RefWorks than the abbreviated version being demonstrated and that more detailed RefWorks classes were given by the library. The referencing guides varied slightly for each course and had been proof-read by all the librarians in our branch to ensure high-quality content, professionally presented.

What the Data Revealed

A number of bibliographies were examined from two of the three target groups. The data collected from the third group was captured by interviewing participants whilst attending their course lecture.

1st Year Project Teams -- Engineering

The Library provides an integrated information skills component in the mandatory first-year introductory engineering course. Eleven one-hour hands-on workshops were delivered to 950 students. Teams consisted of five to six students. The Library has delivered information skills training to this first-year course for a number of years. Hill and Woodall (1999) point out these students have a heavy workload and that the library workshop needs to be closely integrated with the academic content of the course. Learning outcomes are focused on helping students to find, evaluate and cite information for their research projects. The implications of plagiarism are discussed before introducing RefWorks so that students can understand the relevance of referencing software.

Number of Team Bibliographies examined


23 group bibliographies were collected from first year students

Number of bibliographies which had obviously used referencing software / RefWorks


A close look at the bibliographies indicated that 9 out of 23 were correctly generated through the use of bibliographic management software.

Number of references


The number of references used varied from as few as 6 to as many as 40 per project.

Type of sources

Approx. 50% non academic

Approximately half of the sources used were not academic i.e., Bunnings hardware warehouse web site or a Pokemon computer game.

All bibliographies were produced in an author-date style and arranged in alphabetical order by the author‘s last name. The sources acknowledged came predominantly from free online sources such as web sites, online reports and open access articles or conference papers. Some subscription journal articles were also used, especially if the full text was available online. A very small number of books were cited, many of them being e-books.

Nine of the 23 bibliographies looked at were correctly generated through the use of bibliographic management software. It could not be established whether the software used was RefWorks. These bibliographies were consistent in punctuation, font, and bibliographic conventions and detail. They were clearly produced by one single person per team, possibly delegated by the other team members.

The remaining fourteen bibliographies indicated they were created either manually, through bibliographic management software used incorrectly, or a combination of both. A major problem encountered was that different team members added references to their project bibliographies via their own individual methods. The result was in many instances an inconsistent bibliography, with great variations of referencing styles and conventions on the same page. A centralised RefWorks library per team would have eliminated such issues.
Some other problems were related to insufficient bibliographic information: in some cases only the name of the web site and its URL were given. Another common error was numbering references even though using an author-date style. Incorrect punctuation was another frequent error.

3rd Year Project Teams - Biomaterials

What a difference being a third-year students makes! In the training class the students were visibly engaged, asking questions such as how can I export references from Google Scholar to RefWorks? Can I export patents from Scopus? All bibliographies for this project were analysed. All were formatted in an author-date style and sorted alphabetically by author last name. All projects acknowledged a large number of sources, up to 60 in some cases. The quality of these sources demonstrated a huge improvement compared with the first-year examples. An overall sense of the true nature of the research project could be noticed easily. The majority of sources for this group came from subscription journals, standards, patents, and books. Some open access papers and reports were also used, but a very limited number of web sites appeared in the bibliographies.

Number of Team Bibliographies examined


All group bibliographies were collected from the Biomaterials course

Number of bibliographies which had obviously used referencing software / RefWorks


Nearly all bibliographies were generated through the use of bibliographic management software, very possibly RefWorks

Number of references

Average 45

Type of sources

Approx 80% were academic

References included scholarly articles, Australian and international standards and a number of web sites

Only one or two of the 12 bibliographies seemed to have been created manually. Five of them were correctly generated, with 100% consistency in punctuation and formatting. The main problem with the other seven projects was that different team members created parts of their bibliography individually and did not amalgamate the parts correctly. This led to a mix of referencing styles and conventions within the same bibliography.

3rd Year Project Teams - Engineering Management & Communication

The data collected from this group was of a different nature. Two librarians attended the first ten minutes of a lecture for this course. Three questions were addressed to the whole group of about 100 students:

  1. Did you use RefWorks for your project?
  2. Did RefWorks help?
  3. Would you recommend RefWorks to other students?

About 40% of the group responded that they had used RefWorks. The vast majority of these students found it helpful and said they would recommend it to other students. Some other feedback obtained through this impromptu survey was: some used EndNote instead of RefWorks; some preferred doing manual referencing; some used other referencing tools available with some electronic journals. Overall, the results were positive, indicating support for RefWorks and/or other bibliographic management software for referencing purposes in a team project.

Student Feedback from the Information Desk

The Information Desk provides opportunities for face-to-face contact with students and being asked RefWorks queries was welcomed by librarians. Queries included how to cite lecture notes, unpublished reports, and so on. A first-year student asked ten minutes before closing how to use RefWorks! He returned the following morning asking for instruction on RefGrab-It and then took the time to tweak the web sites he had added with additional information. The student was quick to learn, but despite being at the first-year engineering information skills class had little recollection of information imparted aside from the name RefWorks.

Another first-year student requested assistance with referencing a 1978 government report: it was difficult to establish the author and publisher. He was not sure whether his team should use RefWorks because they had only two books for their bibliography. Was it worth it he wanted to know? He did not know about RefGrab-It for adding web sites. Other examples included students who could not remember their team's username and password but once told how to find out were enthusiastic about using RefWorks. One group not using Refworks saw another team using it at length, and instantly convinced of its utility, decided to use it. It is interesting to speculate whether peer group demonstration of bibliographic management tools might be more successful than the imparting of information by librarians. Meyer and Miller (2008) evaluated a RefWorks project where the students were the trainers. Students learned more by teaching RefWorks. They also had a clearer and more direct understanding of their peers' motivation and which RefWorks tools, such as RefGrab-It, would interest them.

What We Learnt: Recommendations for Next Semester

The Dorothy Hill Physical Sciences and Engineering Library will continue promoting RefWorks to undergraduates especially for team-based projects.


RefWorks clearly has benefits for undergraduates with team projects. In three simple steps i.e., finding information, creating the account and exporting references, and creating a team bibliography, we hoped not only to take the hard work out of referencing for team projects but also to encourage good referencing habits. We analysed students' bibliographies and found mixed results; with a few modifications to our teaching we believe we can improve students' referencing. The bibliography for this paper was created using RefWorks but the in-text citations were created manually. References were downloaded from Google Scholar, the library catalogue, and Scopus exactly as the students were instructed to do.


Hill, C. & Woodall, L.B. 1999. Developing information literacy skills in first year engineering students. In: Assoc Prof L. Luong editor. Unfolding Landscapes in Engineering Education: 11th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education; Adelaide: p. 310-314.

Kessler, J. & Van Ullen, M.K. 2005. Citation generators: Generating bibliographies for the next generation. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 31(4): 310-316.

McGrath, A. 2006. RefWorks investigated: An appropriate bibliographic management solution for health students at King's College London? Library and Information Research News, 30(94): 66-73.

Meyer, N.J. & Miller, I.R. 2008. The library as service-learning partner: A Win–Win collaboration with students and faculty. College & Undergraduate Libraries 15 (4): 399-413.

Ramsden, P. 2003. Learning to teach in higher education, 2nd edn, London. : Routledge.

Yu, F., Sullivan, J., & Woodall, L.B. 2006. What can students' bibliographies tell us? evidence based information skills teaching for engineering students. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice 1(2): 12-22.

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