And Speaking Of Citations And Citing

I applaud the Chronicle of Higher Education for their article in this week’s issue about citation (personal bibliographic management (PBM)) software because I think it will help to make more faculty aware of these products and their availability from the campus library. In turn, the more that faculty are aware of products such as EndNote and RefWorks (both mentioned prominently in the article) the better they can communicate their availability to students. I think the academic library community knows how much time PBM software can save our faculty and students, but because they require a bit of a learning curve (much less so for the very basic features of RW) EndNote and RefWorks can be a bit of a hard sell. This article, even though it offers some negative reactions to PBM software, will likely help to promote usage among our communities.

That said I would have liked to seen the following points made or issues raised in the same article:

  • It’s an unfortunate omission to not point out that quite a few library aggregator databases allow PBM software users to directly (with a click or two) export their citations. This saves enormous time in not having to retype citations, not to mention that the records can then be easily edited to include additional content.
  • The issue of whether or not PBM is overkill for undergraduates is raised. I tend to agree that it is likely to be overkill for most undergrads, with the possible exception of an honors student that is likely to be spending more extensive time on a thesis paper. Most undergrads jump from topic to topic with their papers, using few citations in most, so having the database functionality of PBM software is hardly of use to them. It’s unlikely they’ll need to accumulate a large number of citations on any one topic, and the ability to store, search, and retrieve citations as needed is certainly a powerful feature of PBM software.
  • With respect to undergrads the article could have asked an academic librarian to point out that aggregator databases (e.g., ProQuest and EBSCO) now offer the ability to cite references retreived in the databases in one of several major formats. Knowing how to format citations in these databases, and having faculty who can show students how it is done, would likely meet the needs of most undergrads.
  • Finally, related to any discussion of PBM is the issue of whether academic librarians should be spending time teaching students the arcane rules of and inconsistencies among formatting styles, or just be getting them to use the tools that will format the citations for them. I definitely favor just showing students how to use the formatting tools, but there are those that argue that learning how to format citations from scratch is good for undergrads because it will help them to avoid plagiarism, better understand the components of a citation, and make them upstanding citizens. It certainly would have been interesting to add this perspective to the discussion, but perhaps it deserves its own article.
  • One thought on “And Speaking Of Citations And Citing”

    1. I’m in the camp that doesn’t feel learning how to “cite from scratch” has any inherent value, but I do find it’s impossible to enter a citation into any of these programs without knowing what elements need to be included and how to identify those elements. In RefWorks, it’s quite easy to import references, but if you happen to find a source in any other way, the form for entering your own is very complicated and actually deeply frustrating because of the way the forms are laid out (with no correlation to the frequency or order in which those elements are represented in print). The assumption is that most researchers find sources through databases, which is simply wrong. Experienced researchers find sources through other sources as often as through databases. Students also need to proofread the output and fix things – for example, capitalization and italics are always wrong for genus and species in biological citations. Teaching how to use these programs does not absolve us (or our students) of learning what citations need to look like and do.

      I was very pleased when a religion major told her senior seminar she loved RefWorks, but not because it formatted references. It helped her master her sources, take notes, and generally manage her personal understanding of the conversation going on around her topic. And that’s the real value of these programs.

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