Citation Software, or How to Make a Perfect Mess

Preparing notes and bibliographies in a consistent style has long been one of the less glamorous tasks of academic writing. And now, with the increasing use—or rather misuse—of citation software, it is surely one of the most rapidly degenerating.

A recent poll of university teachers who happened to e-mail me the other day showed that although four of the six require students to use consistent styling in notes and bibliographies, there was generally no close monitoring of the results. Four of the six also replied that in their own published work they expect notes and bibliographies to appear in a consistent form. However, there was a suspicious vagueness as to exactly how and when this miracle of consistency would emerge.

So it’s not surprising that students and scholars are turning to automated methods of getting citations into some kind of shape. And it’s even less surprising that—judging from the manuscripts that land on my desk—they seem pretty well content to submit the resulting mess without much scrutiny.

Browsing the tutorials at YouTube, you can quickly perceive the power and usefulness of citation software applications like EndNote, RefWorks, and Zotero, which promise to format footnotes and bibliographies with the click of a mouse. But all three of the videos I viewed at random showed even practiced tutors hitting potholes—for instance, here (“Oh, no—I don’t like to have this title—I want to have the short form”) and here (“It looks like this reference isn’t correct … but let’s just pretend it’s right”) and here (“Go back to your Word file, and OK, let’s go look for it … OK, it didn’t come over … what you’re gonna need to do is … ”).

Never mind demanding Chicago style of my authors—all I ask is that a style be reasonable and consistent. But instead, thanks to the use of citation software, I frequently encounter the use of notes style in the bibliography and vice versa, all perfectly and disastrously consistent. The result for the reader is confusion and inconvenience. That’s because a citation written in bibliography style is broken into little pieces by periods. Thus, when more than one citation appears in a note, the profusion of periods obscures where one source ends and the next begins. Likewise, a note in bibliography style puts the surname first, Saller, Carol, Book Title, which makes for bumpy reading in a note, which should read as normal text.

That surname-first business, on the other hand, is essential for a bibliography, where readers want to scan the alphabetical list of citations. If entries are prepared notes-style, with the author’s first name first, the alphabetized surname is buried partway into each entry.

In addition to ease of reading, consistent styling provides essential information for cataloging and locating scholarly works. Librarian Sarah G. Wenzel at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library confirms that citation style truly does matter, especially to those researching in unfamiliar languages. Discerning an article title from a journal title is difficult enough in notes where the elements appear in random order and various styles; try doing it in Hebrew or Arabic.

Manuscripts with wonky citations sometimes go back to the author for repair, but more often, I simply set to work. The cost for the writer is that publishers’ budgets and schedules simply don’t allow unlimited attention to one manuscript. If your editor has to spend a day cleaning up your documentation, that’s one day less she can spend on the stuff you’d really like her to be tuning and polishing.

In an ideal world, academic copy editors would own and be facile in all the most popular citation applications and able to click the clunkers into shape in no time. But that’s hardly realistic—or reasonable. Not only are there expense and training issues (not to mention access to institutional databases that the largely freelancing editing community does not have), but the fact is, citations are best organized and formatted by the author. Rather than ask editors to acquire and learn all these programs, the writers who choose to run them should be expected to conform their work to their publisher’s submission requirements.

Professors could start by encouraging a higher standard in student papers. Ms. Wenzel points out that classes and even one-on-one instruction are typically available at university libraries.

If students—future academics—learn the software, maybe there’s hope for scholars (and copy editors!) down the line.


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