Citing references by hand may soon be as rare as sighting spotted owls, thanks to new software tools that offer an easy way to compile bibliographies
No matter how many years have passed, the faint recollection of one's first undergraduate term paper often dredges up a memory of undiminished pain: the bibliography. To a sleep-deprived student at three in the morning, the rules of citation can appear arbitrary and diabolical, as though designed to turn an enlightening education into an impossibly rigorous boot camp.
This past spring, Joanna Hudgins found an easier way. The first-year arts student at the University of New Brunswick turned to a software product called EazyPaper to automatically format the footnotes and bibliographies of her term papers. Instead of wading through a style guide, she created a reference with perfect formatting simply by entering information, such as a book's author and title, into an electronic form.
"I was working on a history paper on aspects of the life and successes of Josiah Wedgwood, the potter, at the time, and I gleefully went through clicking 'Insert Reference' everywhere it was needed," says Ms. Hudgins. "With my inexperience, I imagine I saved at least four hours on that history paper."
EazyPaper's creator, Michael Hu, says the product results from his own frustration trying to master the subtleties of citation rules. Trained as a software engineer at Carleton University, Mr. Hu says his first taste of formal academic writing came when he enrolled in a master's program in linguistics several years ago. Even to a meticulous programmer, the picky demands of bibliographic formatting were a shock. "I barely passed my first paper, because of all these [incorrect] commas and periods" in the bibliography, he says.
Mr. Hu designed EazyPaper as a plug-in for Microsoft Word to automatically format a paper's title page, footnotes and bibliography according to the rules of the three most popular academic styles: those of the Modern Language Association, the American Psychological Association and the variant of the Chicago Manual of Style called Turabian.
"Our motto is, 'write the paper, not the footnotes'" says Mr. Hu, whose Ottawa-based company has grown to a dozen staff since he launched it in 2004. He's sold his product through the Internet to students around the world, and he expects to sign a distribution deal this fall that would see EazyPaper hit the shelves of campus stores across North America. (A single-computer licence costs between $40 and $150, the latter for EazyPaper Pro, which includes a feature called EazyLibrary that permits one to download references from a wide number of online library catalogues.)
Mr. Hu has created a single Canadian entry in what has become a busy North American market in software that helps researchers manage citations, format bibliographies and leave their style guides on the shelf. Like EazyPaper, software such as ProCite, EndNote, and Reference Manager (all owned by Thomson ResearchSoft) and the privately held web-based application RefWorks integrate with Microsoft Word to export saved references into papers and to format footnotes and reference lists automatically.
While references may still be entered individually, every product offers options that greatly reduce the drudgery of assembling hand-typed bibliographies. EazyPaper allows straightforward cutting and pasting of source information from online search results, while RefWorks and EndNote allow one-click imports of citations from many library catalogues and full-text databases. These products differ in their emphasis: EazyPaper allows the storage of references but is primarily designed as a formatting aid for individual papers, while RefWorks, EndNote and related applications are databases designed to handle larger numbers of citations. As with EazyPaper, RefWorks and EndNote both offer templates to format papers by particular styles; EndNote includes 2,300 templates for formatting manuscripts to submit to journals in many fields.
Those who use software to manage their references, including faculty, graduate students and undergraduates, say it saves significant amounts of time.
"Citation management software is absolutely wonderful in this respect," says Daniel O'Donnell, chair of the English department at the University of Lethbridge, who used ProCite for years to import citations from the online catalogue of the Library of Congress. Kevin Judge, a PhD candidate in zoology at the University of Toronto, stores about 1,200 citations in Reference Manager, about half of which are linked directly to PDF copies of the articles on his hard drive. The system is "very convenient," he says.
RefWorks users at 20 Ontario universities that are provided access through a province-wide purchasing arrangement called the Ontario Scholars Portal can often click on a "Get It" button next to a RefWorks citation to retrieve the full-text article instantly from their library's electronic collection. "How easy is that?" says Sandra Langlands, acting director of the University of Toronto's Gerstein Science Information Centre.
RefWorks and EndNote dominate the field, because of their wide compatibility with the research databases licensed by academic libraries. Many Canadian universities, for example, offer campus-wide subscriptions to RefWorks, managed as part of their libraries' budget for electronic resources. Librarians say supporting RefWorks, EndNote and similar products makes sense, because they help experienced researchers work more efficiently and beginners learn the ropes of formal academic writing.
"Let's face it, there are very few students who really take the time to learn the style guides," says Fran Nowakowski, coordinator of information literacy efforts at Dalhousie's Killam Library. "What we want to encourage is that [students] do cite appropriately."
Mr. Hu says preliminary research he undertook before starting his company suggested that making citation easier also helps reduce plagiarism, at least in the majority of cases where students are lazy or careless. Jim Blanchard, head of reference services at the University of Manitoba's Elizabeth Dafoe Library, concurs, noting the frequent questions he gets about how to piece together a citation from a fragment of a title or author's name would decrease if more students used bibliographic management software. "If you can be disciplined enough to enter everything in, then [RefWorks] will help you at three o'clock in the morning when you are trying to pull your bibliography together."
Critics of the software
Such software has its detractors, however, who say students may be short-changing their education by offloading citation rules to a computer. "I think that students have to know how to do something properly by themselves before letting technology take over," says David Duke, a history professor at Acadia University. He says students can get tripped up by attempting to reference sources that don't fit the software's pre-defined entry fields - a book that doesn't mention its publisher, for example. "The bibliographic software just isn't that effective, in my view, for students who don't know what bibliographic entries are in the first place. You need to know why, for example, a publisher is an important piece of information."
Dr. Duke also falls into another camp of critics who say citation management software can be more trouble than it's worth. He's tried several versions of EndNote, including one installed on the handheld device he uses with a collapsible keyboard for archival research, and hasn't been impressed. "It didn't do anything better than I could do using my MS Word for Palm ... and it certainly couldn't do it faster." In his line of work he notes that such programs are poorly equipped to handle non-standard references such as archival records and interviews.
For others, having their research locked into a proprietary format can cause problems. Though generally a fan of citation software and a self-described "bibliography dork," Lethbridge's Dr. O'Donnell says converting his references to ProCite from another tool "caused all sorts of headaches" from the data being encoded in different ways. "In the end I had to hire a student to go through it all in a spreadsheet and fix it by hand." He adds that cross-compatibility between products has since improved, but still causes problems for non-standard entries.
And unlike the minimal overhead for a box of index cards, there can also be the issue of paying for product upgrades or ongoing account subscriptions. Students at subscribing institutions can make unlimited use of RefWorks while enrolled, but once they graduate have to pay a yearly $100 US subscription fee to have continued access to their citations. Antonio Franceschet, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, says he lost access to about 350 EndNote citations when he moved to his new position from Acadia University, which has an institutional licence to the product. "I have a pretty extensive set of bibliographies to which I no longer have access and had spent some time creating," he says.
Librarians say citation management software appears to be more heavily used in the sciences, where most current research is in electronic form, and used to a lesser extent in the humanities, where research tends to accumulate in print. Age may play a role too: faculty members who have evolved their working methods over decades may be unwilling to change to a reference database in mid-career.
On the other hand, Mr. Blanchard at the University of Manitoba says graduate and undergraduate students tend to see the time-saving benefits of the software right away once they are shown how it works. Although undergraduates tend to have far fewer references to juggle than graduate students, Ms. Nowakowski notes they formed Dalhousie's largest group of new users of RefWorks over the past year, a fact she attributes to enthusiastic promotion of the tool during undergraduate library usage seminars.
Preferences aside, easier handling of citations may be a good thing in the future. As online publishing evolves, says Carla Daniels, a spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association, the committee behind APA Style is grappling with the potential for a host of new and complicated rules for citing electronic documents. "We are likely to need new formats and more flexibility," she says. And that will likely mean even thicker style guides and even more headaches for a student struggling to finish a term paper at 3 a.m.
Devin Crawley graduated with a master's of information studies from the University of Toronto in 2004. He is a librarian dealing with web-based services at the Ottawa Public Library.