Reference Management

Yesterday, Liv and I discussed how to make the transition from what I like to romanticize as “hand crafted” reference lists to software-supported reference management. The CBS Library’s default suggestion is Ref Works, and I spent a perfectly pleasant afternoon learning how to use it to reference a paragraph I had written.

It really does seem like it will save me time in the long run. After all, the creation of a reference in the database is usually no more difficult than finding a source in the library’s database and then importing it into your Ref Works account. In the case of a reference to a 1977 piece in the Times Literary Supplement (not indexed in our periodicals database before 1990), we had two options: either create the reference manually, which is of course no more difficult than making an entry in your reference list the old way, or importing the reference from a reference list in one of your sources.

We chose the second method, which means I have to add a word of caution. First of all, you should always examine a source before you cite it. That is, you should never rely on another scholar’s referencing. (See this post for an object lesson.)  That was no problem here since the reference list we imported to my account was one of my own, i.e., all the references from one of my previously published papers. Here, again, there are two ways of going about it. Some publishers, like Taylor and Francis, will let you import a citation along with all the cited references. Alternatively, you can locate the paper in a larger database, like EBSCO or SCOPUS and then generate the cited reference list there. You can then import those references.

We used the first method, which did not work perfectly. It seems the publisher generates the data to export by “reading” the actual reference list and sometimes misunderstands it. That means some entries don’t have titles, for example, or that book chapters are cited like whole books. So you have to go in and clean up the entries. It’s not big deal, and still at least as easy as having a hand-made file of your references. I haven’t tried the other way yet, but I’ll report back when I do. I imagine the information that is exported from an actual literature database will be of higher quality.

I’ve been comparing the trouble you have to take to interact with the software with the default (“manual”) approach I normally use. And, like I say, I think it’s no more difficult to use Ref Works than doing it by hand. But it’s important to emphasize that it now becomes much easier to generate a reference list and, in fact, to keep track of your references (hence “reference manager“) . So it looks like at least a no-loss-win scenario. But before I get too enthusiastic about this (I’m old-school at heart in all things) I want to use it for a while, throughout the writing of a whole paper, and see whether it introduces errors I wouldn’t otherwise have made. I’ll keep you posted.

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