During a lecture (and a separate presentation) my instructor told us about bibliographic software, how it composes references automatically and is able to correctly cite articles in many formats. The software is freely available to everyone.

However, many others did not use it and were penalized on incorrect formatting when the assignment was due. Why would one not use software to compose references and citations? Is there advantage in learning how to cite articles manually?

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    Why wouldn't others use it? They probably didn't think it was important to have the references in a perfect style.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 15:37

3 Answers 3


All bibliographic software has a learning curve. You have to invest time and energy up front to learn the system and set up your database, and only reap the benefits later in the decreased amortized cost of maintaining correct citations.

If somebody doesn't think the tradeoff will be worth it (e.g., thinks they "aren't good with computers" or doesn't think they'll write many papers that the software would be useful for or is in a rush and isn't thinking about the long term), then they may manage a bibliography by hand.

For example, I'm a devout LaTeX/BibTeX user and would never consider doing something by hand---except that I have done so on a few occasions when forced to use an incompatible format where it wasn't worth setting up a new toolchain (e.g., putting a few citations at the end of a PowerPoint deck).

  • @Superbest but the fact that there were many people that didn't do that must mean that it must have been a bit more complicated (but not in my mind).
    – alexyorke
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 21:09
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    @alexy13 What is your null hypothesis? You are reasoning from a logical fallacy.
    – Superbest
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 21:15
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    @Superbest What, exactly, do you disagree with? I'll say, as somebody who's been using LaTeX for preparing paper for nearly 20 years now, I'd never even heard of JabRef before. I'm always up for something to make life easier, so I figured I'd try it. I got as far as downloading and launching JabRef. At this point, the application announced that it was damaged and could not run, and I decided I couldn't be bothered to try to debug it and deleted it.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 21:17
  • @jakebeal My point was that the learning curve is trivial for many programs, and not using any citation management is a universally bad decision as opposed to a legitimate tradeoff. With regards to not hearing of JabRef, the second google result for free citation manager is a Wikipedia list including JabRef, and result #13 is jabref.sourcefourge.net. However, since you say you found the program to be broken, I retract my comment - I guess it's not so easy to use after all. Granted, JabRef is hardly the only software or the best one.
    – Superbest
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 21:23
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    We are speaking about two different things here. There is Bibtex, which automates citation formatting but is still a text-only format, and there is a second layer of abstraction/UI provided by Jabref and the like. While I can vouch for the great utility of Bibtex, the advantages of Jabref are less obvious to me. Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 11:22

I can think of at least three real-world advantages we gain by learning how to cite articles manually:

  1. It compels us to become familiar with the syntax and form of citations, which makes references to articles easier to read and parse ... something that we all still have to do manually.

  2. If you only need to jot down or reference one article you can do so without troubling with software tools.

  3. By knowing how citations should be formatted, you are in a position to recognize errors and correct them (i.e. you can tell when your bib software malfunctions).

Pocket calculators are cheap, reliable, and widely available. Why do we insist on learning addition? The answer is, there are a lot of times you might want to use addition and you don't always want to depend on a calculator for that.

Of course we should take advantage of software tools for compiling references and bibliographies, but this is not always viable or always necessarily better than doing it manually unless we can assume that bibliographic software:

  • correctly cites articles in the desired format.
  • composes references with little effort (automatically).
  • is freely available to everyone (i.e., at no cost).

In my experience, all three of these assumptions break down much more often than one would like. For instance, it might be difficult and very frustrating to make a small change to a standard format in your bib software, which is required by the journal or funding agency you need to work with.

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    I think assumption #3 isn't really necessary. If I'm writing an article, it's still advantageous for me to use bibliographic software that is available to me, regardless of whether it is available to anyone else. Once the article is prepared, nobody else needs the bib software to read it.
    – David Z
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 22:02
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    @DavidZ I would be inclined to agree, except that the point of references is collaboration. If I need special software to work with citations it can be a headache and an obstacle when I try to work with another researcher, dept., etc. to prepare a paper or a research proposal.
    – dionys
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 22:08
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    Re Assumption #3: I have met lots of people that thought they could be faster and more accurate doing a repetitive task by hand rather than using a computer. Most of them were wrong. Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 11:27
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    Point 1 is not so relevant since the arrival of DOI.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 15:36
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    @FedericoPoloni I think you missed the point of #3. The point is that if you don't understand the format, you won't know when something is wrong. dionys points out that this helps you if the software does something wrong, but it also helps you when you do something wrong. For example, if you type some information in the wrong field, you won't catch it being out of place unless you know what to expect. To dionys' point about the software making errors, this might be more likely if you're trying out new, immature software.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 15:51

I think is the type of things you need to do by hand once, in order to know the basic idea of it. After that it should be left for computers to do, just like determinants or matrix multiplication.

Doing it by hand is extremely time consuming and prone to errors. There are too many citation styles for anyone to master them anyway, even within a specific field.

This is just another thing better left to automated algorithms.

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