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!

Fun with Zotero: Scanning barcodes

I’m fascinated by citation management software. At work, I regularly teach students, faculty, and sometimes other librarians how to use EndNote, and I’ve given a couple of sessions on Zotero as well. Sometimes I doubt that the majority of information professionals share my passion, but a quick look at my blog stats tells me that my most popular blog post by far has been the one I wrote comparing EndNote and Zotero, so I must not be alone.

Both EndNote and Zotero have been improved tremendously since I wrote that post three years ago, and I try to keep up with the new features. One feature of Zotero I find particularly useful when dealing with print books is the ability to import an item by ISBN. By clicking the magic wand icon, you can enter the ISBN of a book, either by typing it in or by scanning the barcode, and Zotero will import the metadata from WorldCat. Now, this feature is actually not new, but there’s a new option for anyone who doesn’t have access to a library barcode scanner (or for when you’ve left yours at home). Scanner for Zotero is an Android app that allows you to scan a book’s barcode using the camera on your Android device and then sends the record straight to your Zotero library. The app costs $2 from the Android Market, but if you really don’t want to pay, you can download the code, which has an open source license, and then compile it yourself (personally, I was happy enough to pay the toonie).

Logo for the Scanner for Zotero app

I’ve been using the app for a few weeks now, so I thought I would share my thoughts. In general, I am quite impressed; it’s a simple app without any bells or whistles that only does one thing but does it very well. I hit a small snag when setting it up, but the developer responded promptly to my email and walked me through it (thanks, John!). Scanning a barcode is reasonably quick, though not as fast as the dedicated barcode scanner I have at work, and adding an item to your Zotero library is straightforward (the simple interface does not provide an option for saving an item to a collection within your library, but this hasn’t bothered me). One of the only options available is to choose whether to use WorldCat or Google Books to retrieve the metadata. As one would hope, the records are more or less the same regardless of the source; however, there are some slight differences. What surprised me the most was that there were differences between records imported using the magic wand (which makes use of WorldCat) and ones imported using the app when instructing it to use WorldCat. Here’s what I found when using the three different methods:

Magic wand (WorldCat):

  • Language field blank
  • No page numbers
  • Editors show up in Author field without any indication they are actually editors
  • Only the first author is listed

Scanner for Zotero with WorldCat:

  • Language appears correctly as three letter code: eng, fre, etc.
  • No page numbers
  • Editor shows up in Author field preceded by “Edited by”
  • Multiple authors or editors show up in a single Author field

Scanner for Zotero with Google Books:

  • Language appears correctly as two letter code: en, fr, etc.
  • Number of pages appears correctly
  • Editors show up in Author field without any indication they are actually editors
  • Multiple authors or editors show up in separate Author fields

Both Scanner for Zotero options clearly produce better metadata than the built-in magic wand, but each of the three has its own quirks, presumably due largely to quirks in the structure of WorldCat and Google Books. I would recommend the app to any Zotero user with an Android device. Even if you don’t have a stack of books you’ve been waiting to add to your Zotero library, it’s fun to be able to zap the barcode of anything with an ISBN. Surely if you’ve read all the way to the end of this post, you must agree with my definition of fun.

Zotero lawsuit update

As I briefly mentioned earlier when writing about Zotero, Thomson Reuters, owners of EndNote, is suing George Mason University, creators of Zotero. It seems that the lawsuit is going ahead, with recent statements having been released by both parties. As reported by Disruptive Library Technology Jester:

George Mason University issued a statement this morning regarding the lawsuit filed against it by the Thomson Scientific division of Reuters. It looks like GMU intends to fight the lawsuit. It has restored the functionality that allowed Zotero to understand the EndNote® citation style file format and announced that it will not renew its site license for Zotero.

In a comment to this post, Allison noted that Thomson Reuters has issued a response:
The Scientific business of Thomson Reuters has initiated a law suit against George Mason University (GMU) because of violations of the terms and conditions of the EndNote® Desktop license agreement.

Thomson Reuters VP, Business Strategy and Development, Dave Kochalko said, “Simply put, we strongly believe that the creators of Zotero have reverse engineered our software code which enables EndNote’s bibliographic formatting capability. These format files only exist as software code; there is no content or information independent of lines of code and these files can only be interpreted by the computer. A key value of EndNote is its ability to format a bibliography within a manuscript and the format files are integral to that capability. We have talented employees who have invested many years in building this resource for the EndNote community.”

Software review: Zotero compared with EndNote

For those of you who don’t know, Zotero is an extension for the Firefox browser that acts as a citation manager. First introduced two years ago, it has quickly gained popularity as a cost-free alternative to commercial citation managers such as EndNote and RefWorks.

One of the main strengths of Zotero is the ease with which it allows you to save the citations you come across while browsing the web. When there are citations on the page you’re visiting, whether it be part of an OPAC, Google Scholar, or even Amazon, an icon will appear in Firefox’s address bar. Click that icon and Zotero will automatically save all the citation information available (or give you the option of which citations to save, if there are multiple citations on the page) into your Zotero database. From there, you can manipulate and organize your citations in a number of ways – add notes and tags, create “collections” for different projects, edit citations, and more.

Once it’s time to put your citations into action, the plug-in for Microsoft Word allows you to drop them straight into your paper, both in the body of your text and in the bibliography (in the style of your choice, naturally).

At McGill, the most popular citation manager is EndNote, since McGill students are able to download it for free. EndNote offers many of the same features as Zotero, so I decided to test them out side by side. I created two mock essays that both used the same citations. I both collected the citations and inserted the inline references and bibliographies using Zotero for one and EndNote for the other. Clearly, this test only scratches the surface of the features available in these programs, but I believe it is a realistic scenario in terms of how they might typically be used. Here are the results of my informal comparison:

I set both programs to use APA style, and although they both performed well, neither produced perfect formatting in the bibliography. Both programs occasionally included information that is considered superfluous according to APA style, and both occasionally omitted necessary information. In terms of creating citations and bibliographies, both programs were easy to use (through the Word plug-ins) and produced reasonably accurate documents.

In terms of compiling the citations within the programs themselves, Zotero was easier to use. When using EndNote, it was easy to import citations from databases and from Google Scholar, more difficult from the McGill catalogue, and impossible from Amazon; when using Zotero, it was simple to import citations from all these locations. I also appreciated the simplicity of Zotero’s integration with Firefox, which minimizes the number of programs running at once.

Overall, my recommendations are as follows:

  • Zotero is strong enough that anyone looking to start using citation management software would be well advised to choose Zotero, unless there is a compelling reason to use EndNote, or a compelling reason not to use Firefox.
  • The two programs are similar enough that anyone already comfortable using EndNote should not switch, unless they are paying to use EndNote, in which case they should certainly consider Zotero as a free alternative.
  • Since it’s free and easy to use, anyone who’s curious should go ahead and give Zotero a try; however, be aware that when Zotero and EndNote are both installed, the automatic export feature in Google Scholar and some databases will always export to Zotero, so be sure to disable Zotero when using EndNote.

Edit: I almost forgot to point out that Zotero has been in the news lately – Thomson Reuters, producers of EndNote, is suing George Mason University, producers of Zotero, because Zotero allows users to convert EndNote’s proprietary files into an open source format. For more information and commentary, see Jason Puckett and Caveat Lector.