I love citation software because I don’t love citations

By jazzmodeus on flickr

People are surprised when I tell them I’m interested in citation management software (I’m talking about librarians here; non-librarians just stare blankly when I tell them that). Am I really that passionate about these programs? Yes; I have a special fondness for Zotero, but I’ve also learned to love EndNote (in spite of its many quirks) through teaching it for the past couple of years, and I’ve been curious enough to spend time with RefWorks and Mendeley as well.

So do I really love citations that much? No. In fact, just the opposite. I have no love for the mechanics of the various citation styles, and I think it’s a waste of time for students and researchers to go through their reference lists and italicize the journal title and volume number but not the issue number (when using APA style). I think it’s a tragedy when a student (especially an undergraduate student) loses marks on an assignment for putting a comma after the journal title instead of a period. I love citation software because I don’t love doing citations by hand, and these programs can save people a lot of time and frustration by automatically formatting citations in just about any style imaginable.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s essential that students are taught the principles behind citing; they absolutely need to learn why and when to cite. I just don’t think they should spend so much time on how to cite. I suppose it’s worthwhile to teach students that different citations styles exist, but even this isn’t critical for students who have no intention of ever publishing an academic paper (though they do need to know the name of the style they’re expected to use, so they can select it in the software).

I would actually go so far as to say that the use of citation software can discourage plagiarism in some cases. Imagine a first year undergrad working madly late at night on a paper that’s due the next day (I’m sure you’ve never known anyone like this, but use your imagination). He comes to the end of his writing and realizes he needs to cite his sources. He types up citations for all the direct quotations and other obvious passages. Struggling to keep his eyes open, he realizes there are additional sources he relied on heavily in his research, but he can’t quite remember where he copied down their details. Plus, he’s so tired that he will probably make errors in his reference list and lose marks. He hits print and falls asleep at his desk, without giving any credit to some of his sources.

Now imagine that same student, still working at the last minute, but this time he’s been using Zotero (or a similar program) throughout his research process. Each time he reads something relevant, he adds the citation information to his Zotero library (usually with just a single click). Now when it comes time to insert these citations into his paper in the wee hours of the morning, he makes a few quick clicks, and the word processor plugin does all the work for him. Of course, he needs to go through and make sure there are no errors (the software is certainly not perfect), but it saves him a lot of time and effort. And since it’s quick and easy, he cites all his sources, even the ones he might have been able to get away with omitting.

When first learning about citations, students often ask how to decide how many to include in their papers, to which most instructors reply, “when in doubt, cite.” I’m sure this occasionally leads to papers where every single sentence has a citation, but I think everyone would agree that it’s better to have a few superfluous citations than to have a few omitted. I say, let’s make this as easy as possible by using software for the heavy lifting.

So I love citation software because I don’t love forcing students to learn where to place their commas when they could be learning how to actually perform research. But this leads to another question: what would happen if every university instructor in the world agreed that students could just jot down the author, title, and publication year of each source they used, in any format? Would I still love citation software if its formatting function became unnecessary for undergraduates? I’ll admit this would make it less essential, but I think it would still be useful to help students keep track of their sources as they go through the research process. And of course the formatting function would still save time for graduate students and other researchers. So yes. I would continue to promote these programs to students, learn new ones as they are introduced, and blog about them.

What do you think? Am I crazy for loving software this much? Leave me a comment!


4 thoughts on “I love citation software because I don’t love citations

  1. I don’t find this crazy at all! I learned to use RefWorks during my undergrad and always found it really helpful. I always did feel like I had lost a little of the why though, as you say. I really loved and appreciated learning (particularly as a Women’s Studies major) that APA maintains guidelines on Bias-Free Language (http://apastyle.org/manual/supplement/index.aspx).

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