Sunday, October 18, 2020

Reference management

In keeping with my previous post, I asked my Twitter mutuals for suggestions on reference management. I'd been pitched EndNote and Zotero, but hadn't made much use of either. One person asked if I'd tried org-ref. I hadn't, so they linked me to John Kitchin's demo video. I was sold within the first two minutes, and about a week into the honeymoon phase, I'm ready to move my writing into org entirely. I'll spare you the zeal of the new convert (not least because my rhapsodizing will look stupid if I end up abandoning it in two weeks), but I did want to write a quick post about my approach to footnotes and bibliographies to date.

I never bothered with reference managers. I'd tried Word's built-in reference system and found it predictably unusable. I'd poked around with Zotero, then mostly forgotten about it. The advantages never seemed significant enough to outweigh the hassle of logging references in the manager to begin with. I go back to sources a lot when I write, and I often add sources impulsively. To open a separate program to punch in bibliographic information in the middle of writing, then futz with tags and "collections," just felt like an unnecessary speed bump. So by habit, I defaulted to typing out references myself, in footnotes and bibliography. This is one of many bad habits that Word makes it easy to fall into, and stay in for years. I had typed out references myself for every seminar paper, every conference paper, every draft of my dissertation proposal, and a journal article. For five years of graduate school, this is the life I led. I am a fool.

Pretty early in the process of dissertation writing, it became clear that managing references manually was not a great idea for a project larger than an article. My prospective bibliography was already bewilderingly long, and it ballooned rapidly over the summer as I started doing more than preliminary research. Outside the physical sorting of printed articles into binders by chapter (which I'm still sticking to, thank you very much), I had no mechanism for organizing them, and the physical sorting is decidedly more helpful in the research phase than the writing phase.

What kept me from moving into a reference manager, then? I already had a lengthy bibliography with written entries. A lot of written entries. Enough that the thought of reentering all of them into Zotero was horrifying. It would take a week. Sure, I could just plug in the DOI or ISBN for most things and the program could fill out the rest, but I, very smartly, didn't include DOI strings or ISBNs in my master bibliography. What could I do, then, besides dig up hundreds of loose PDFs in search of the magic numbers? Zotero did not accommodate my five years of accumulated bad habits.

Imagine my relief when I found out that org-ref could check written citations against Crossref and generate a BibTeX entry for any results. I just about soiled myself. That function alone converted me. Emacs learning curve notwithstanding, it literally saved me days. There are other advantages, too, of course. Managing the bibliography in plain text feels much less cumbersome than Zotero's GUI, even if it is more limited. It helps that I'm keeping classification simple, assigning each entry one (or occasionally two or three) of five set keywords by chapter. As far as writing itself goes, org syntax is also very easy to get used to coming from Markdown, and in many ways (such as inline footnotes) it's much nicer. This is all subject to change, of course, but for now I'm onboard.

No comments:

Post a Comment