• On 01/07/2016
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Using bibliographic software

Creating bibliographies is a super tedious task and one that many of us dread to do. And no matter how much time we spend on one, it never fails that when we finally get that piece published there are numerous, time-sucking errors that are found by the editors that need to be corrected.

I was right there with everyone about hating these sorts of tasks because of the tediousness and time-suck that it is. Until…until I finally decided to invest the time and energy into learning how to use bibliographic software. Once I made the decision, I have never once regretted it, and I have to say it has since saved me much time and energy.

Let me tell you how and why.

First, when I say bibliographic software, I am referring to tools that you can buy or that have free online versions. Some common examples are Endnote, Refworks, Mendeley (owned by Elsevier), and Zotero. The first two are software packages you have to purchase (but both have online versions that sync) and the latter two are free and used through a web interface.

It’s likely that the vast majority of academics have tried some of these tools at some point, but it’s also likely that because none of them work EXACTLY like you may want them too that you abandoned them thinking you didn’t have the time. I was that person, too. Truly, I was, but when I finally realized how they could be used and why I should be using them, I’ve become an evangelist of sorts about them.

Let’s start with the why first. I can assure that the first few publications that I ever got accepted I spent HOURS fixing the bibliography after the acceptance. So many errors between forgetting to include things, forgetting to take things out that I no longer needed, minor errors in format such as missing commas or not understanding when you use issue numbers, etc. This ongoing problem and my working on a book (where the prospectus I sent out had to be done in three different citation formats!) made me realize that I needed to do something. I had to pick a bibliographic software and stick to it.

I landed on EndNote not because it’s perfect or great or for any one specific reason. I picked it because I got a good deal; I didn’t want a free online tool (because there’s a greater chance of them going out of business or making radical changes); I wanted a tool for both the desktop (yes, I am proudly a dinosaur) and a web version; I wanted to be able to do my own keywords; and it had to work on a Mac.

So what’s the answer to why you need one? here are the the specific reasons

  • makes creating bibliographies EASY, efficient, painless, and no time at all
  • helps keep track of research notes
  • enables specific tagging for specific projects and lots of cross-referencing through tags (which in Endnote are keywords)
  • makes importing lots of references from different sources easy and quick

Once you make the commitment to a specific tool, it becomes an important tool in your workflow in keeping track of new projects and the work that is related to it. For me, it also becomes a great way to shoot out references to send to people who ask about specific areas of work. It is my back-up bibliographic brain.  Once I figured out the how it could work for me, I realized that another why reason was that it helped me relax about remembering very little thing. One of my strengths is that I do have a great bibliographic memory. But using Endnote has meant that I don’t have to rely on that memory 100% of the time. So now I don’t panic about forgetting things. They’re in Endnote and they’re backed up.

Because here’s the thing. Once you have to input the citation into endnote and you tag it, you have a greater chance of remembering it, especially if it’s related to an area that you’re working in.

That’s the biggest why and how. It simply helps you keep track of the information overload that we all feel we’re drowning in. It provides one easy place to go to pull out important references and then jump from those references to then moving to using other databases to confirm that you’ve covered all the literature that needs to be covered.

The how you use it has to match to your workflow. But for me, I use it because it helps me track of stuff through keywords. For over 80% of the citations in my endnote, I have tagged them using my own keywords. This makes it easy for me to work on current projects and mor importantly future projects.

Here’s an example. When I wrote the introduction to the CDQ issue that I did with Erin Frost, it’s basically just a big bibliography that helps to map the emerging field of the rhetoric of health and medicine. Big parts of the drafting and of course, the bibliography was able to do that pretty quickly because all I had to do was to query my own database, refer to my many notes, and write, write, write. Then Erin wrote, wrote, and edited the whole thing. Voila! Endnote helped a lot.

Here’s another example. I’m working on a big transdisciplinary project and overtime I run across something that is relevant and I put it in Endnote, I tag with keywords for that project and other relevant keywords. That way when I’m ready to write up whatever is related to that project I just have to do a keyword search on that project’s keyword.

The one thing that none of them do well (though Reworks will do this) is pull the new citations on certain journals into your library. For me, I set up the journal alerts (available from the publisher websites) so when I get an email that a new issue is published, I immediately download all of those citations into my endnote. I track the five major journals in tech comm, several geography journals, several heath communication and public health journals, and some random journals that I always find intellectually stimulating.Also, anytime I get a recommendation or run across something via social media I import it immediately.  The same goes with every book chapter that I copy. AND this is key, I tag them my own keywords. (I keep a list of my own generated keywords close by that way I can check it for whether I called something visual rhetoric or viz rhetoric!)

When I made the commitment to use the tool, it required lots of preliminary work. I did that work (and still do it) for an hour here and there. So on those days I don’t have a lot of brain power to do other writing tasks, I put some effort into housekeeping and updating Endnote because it’s a tool.

So using bibliographic software of some type will remain one of my go-to pieces of advice for young (and old) scholars.


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