refer was written by Mike E. Lesk at Bell Laboratories  in or before 1978, and is now available as part of most Unix-like operating systems. A free reimplementation exists as part of the groff package.
refer works with a reference file, a text file where the author lists works to which she might want to refer. One such reference (to an article in a journal in this case) might look like:
%A Brian W. Kernighan %A Lorinda L. Cherry %T A System for Typesetting Mathematics %J J. Comm. ACM %V 18 %N 3 %D March 1978 %P 151-157 %K eqn
The author then can refer to it in her troff document by listing keywords which uniquely match this reference:
.[ kernighan cherry eqn .]
refer sees little use today, primarily because troff itself is not used much for longer technical writing that might need software support for reference and citation management.
- Michael Lesk. Some applications of inverted indexes on the Unix system. In UNIX Programmer's manual: Supplementary Documents, volume 2. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, seventh edition, 1982. Also available online 
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