Catching the reference

I’ve heard it said that uni students don’t have opinions, only references.  I’m already starting to feel that.

My last TMA came back marked this morning, just as I finished off my second draft for TMA03.  (I gave it an early submission just in case something happens and I forget to submit my final draft later.)  The last one had its own share of references, which I did by hand, and it took me ages to get them formatted correctly into the OU’s particular flavour of the Harvard referencing model.  This time, the references section was literally the largest portion of my TMA, and there’s no way I could do it without quitting my job and saying goodbye to my children for a few months a year.  Enter reference management software.

On one of the multi-module Facebook groups I’m in, someone asked what reference software everybody used.  I had no idea what they were even talking about, so was very interested in the discussion.  Somebody mentioned that they used CiteThisForMe, so I gave it a look.  It was like Christmas, but if you had super boring parents.

Different reference management software packages have different functionality, but in general they try to identify a source (typically by being fed a URL or by clicking a browser plug-in button when on a cited page) and extract information from that source.  This includes things like the author’s name, the date of publication, journal titles, volume numbers, etc.  It then plugs that information into a template for your desired reference model, either letting you copy-and-paste it, or inserting it for you with a word processor plug-in.

I tested CiteThisForMe with a reference I’d done for my last TMA, which took me three or four minutes to write with the OU Library’s help page up on the Harvard referencing FAQs.  It took a single cut and paste of a URL!  Everything was more or less correct, but the formatting was slightly wrong.  That’s when I noticed that I could refine the Harvard reference to Harvard referencing for Open University.  Sadly, it still wasn’t quite perfect, as it had formatting for a previous year.

I soon discovered that most reference management software get their formats from an open source program called BibTeX.  BibTeX itself is hard to use, but other fantastically easy tools make use of it as a resource.  Not all tools kept their formats updated regularly, though.

I tried out a few other tools, and was happy using RefME for a few days before I was approached by the head of an academic institution asking for assistance in assessing and choosing a reference managagement tool.  Coincidentally, she had also recently been exposed to them for the first time, and wanted to know how the one she saw, Zotero, stacked up to the rest of the field.

In her case, Zotero turned out to be the best fit due to its browser plugins, Word plugins, and ease of use.  If I had my summer of pre-uni study prep back, though, I’d heavily invest time into figuring out how to make Docear work for me.  It’s an entire suite for academic writing, and in addition to a decent (if slightly unweildy) reference management tool, it also includes things like mind mapping, PDF annotating, and other things.  For many, it would be perfect for the TMA notes document of my last post.

You can’t just leave your references to the software.  They get the references slightly wrong often enough that you have to go over each one and tweak them.  But it takes a three or four minute job down to just half a minute.  That makes a large difference when you’re writing a TMA and cycle between eight web sources before finally deciding on two and tossing the other six away.  After you’ve already re-written that section four times.

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