Speaker Night Recap: Magic Tricks and Reference Management

By Jean Rath

When I was in high school in the 70s, I collected references by jotting their details down on index cards. I then used the information to carefully write out my bibliographies according to my teachers’ instructions. This was tedious, but the bibliography instructions were clear. If I got it right, I got better marks. I never dreamed of a day when all of that could be magically done for me. At the September Speaker Night, Carolyn Brown showed us that magic.

Reference management software has been around for fifteen years or so. It’s a tool that allows researchers to collect, manage, and insert information into documents in the preferred style. My inner teenager was most impressed, considering those meticulously written bibliographies. With this software, a reference inserted into a text will automatically update the bibliography. Carolyn also demonstrated how, with one click, an entire bibliography could be restyled.The reaction of Speaker Night attendees was the same as if she’d pulled a rabbit out of her hat.

The shades of my handwritten index card lists were also rattling around my head as I watched Carolyn demonstrate the ease with which she could build up her database of citations. When she found a useful journal article, she sent the metadata to a folder in her software with one click. She cautioned that it was important to proofread the text, since there may be errors in the downloaded data.

Carolyn focused on two software products: EndNote and Mendeley. EndNote has become an industry leader; it’s compatible with MS Word and has its own ribbon. The reference library on the computer syncs with the version on the Web, and can be shared—although Carolyn cautioned that she finds the online interface a bit clunky. Many of the hundreds of reference styles in the industry are available on EndNote, allowing for “magical” automatic changes in style. By contrast, Mendeley is free. It uses different terms than EndNote, but the way it works is similar. It has one feature not found in EndNote: when a PDF is dragged and dropped into Mendeley, the software will read and record the metadata.

Word also has a reference management feature, but it is only capable of the basics. Carolyn doesn’t recommend it for anything bigger than a university essay. She further advised that when choosing reference management software, it’s important to know which reference style will be used, and which databases the information will be extracted from.

Reference management software may look like magic, but in fact it’s a usable tool for editors. There is an overwhelming amount of information out there, and Carolyn’s talk provided a comforting peek into the ways that writers and researchers can constrain all that data into something useful.

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