Friday, May 12, 2006

Article Note: On Citation Generators

Citation for the article:

Kessler, Jane and Mary K. Van Ullen. "Citation Generators: Generating Bibliographies for the Next Generation." The Journal of Academic Librarianship 31.4 (July 2005): 310-316.

I read the article via OmniFile.

Upfront, I will admit that I am not a fan of citation generators. I know a lot of people out there swear by them, but personally I prefer to do citations manually for my papers. However, I do get the question about these tools about once or twice a semester from students. I usually tell them my personal preference, but I do encourage them to experiment with the tools and see how they like them in the hopes they will judge them for themselves. Additionally, our library links to some of the online versions as part of our pages on how to cite sources. I do note that our campus does not own any of the software that can be purchased for this purpose. Overall, my I got interested when I saw this article. I am going to jot down some quotes and ideas from the article with a bit of my thoughts on the matter.
  • "Use of these tools might relieve some of the tedium from information literacy assignments and allow students to focus on understanding why and when to cite. However, some librarians question whether students will learn to cite properly if they do not learn to do it manually first" (310-311).
I don't think students need to become experts at citing, but they do need to know enough to do it well. Back in the day when I was teaching composition in high school, one of my colleagues used the fictitious research paper to teach citation skills. Readers can find a version of this assignment here. In essence, students could write any b.s. they wanted; the idea was to go for correct citation format. It seemed to work. Overall, I think that students need a sense of how to cite, and they need to know how and when to reach for the appropriate handbook. In this context, I say they need a sense because of the citation machines. If you have no idea how to cite, how do you know if you got a good result from the software or online tool?
  • What the study aimed to do: "The focus of this study was to examine two of the new Web-based programs and one PC-based program and compare them for accuracy, ease of use, and suitability for an undergraduate environment. The study also attempted to determine the extent to which academic libraries are recommending or supporting these products" (311). They looked at NoodleBib, EasyBib, and EndNote 6.0.
The study found that support from libraries varied. For instance:
  • "Although EndNote is widely supported, libraries vary widely in the extent of support. Some libraries limit support to linking to the tip sheets, interactive tutorial, and technical support available at the EndNote site. Other libraries provide guides to choosing bibliographic management software, including product comparison charts and information about special academic pricing. Many libraries offer detailed information about using EndNote with the library's databases and catalog, including the necessary import filters and connection files. There were also detailed online tutorials developed by the libraries and specifically tailored to the library" (312).
In terms of problems and errors, formatting items found through databases was often problematic; this is something I have noticed and a reason why I prefer to do things manually. Overall, the study found that "none of the programs were flawless in this regard" (314). Additionally, the authors note that for the study librarians familiar with citation formats did the data entry into the citation tools. They note that "undergraduate students, many of whom lack any experience creating bibliographies, would be expected to generate significantly more user errors than appeared here" (315). This may not sound very encouraging, but there may be hope.

From the conclusions then:
  • "Personal bibliographic citation managers such as EndNote are widely used by faculty and graduate students and are being supported by librarians. For undergraduates, these programs have several drawbacks: they are expensive, have an extensive learning curve, and perform unnecessary functions for undergraduate assignments. Recently developed Web-based citation generators such as NoodleBib and EasyBib offer an alternative. They are inexpensive, portable, easy to use, and perform the functions undergraduates need" (315).
  • "Should these new citation generators be recommended to students and supported by libraries? If used properly, these programs can produce accurate citations and bibliographies" (315).
Notice the three keywords in that last quote: "if used properly." So, why does this matter to librarians? It matters because of our role as educators.
  • "As new citation generators are developed, students and faculty will look to librarians for guidance on which product to select and support in using the product. Librarians should be proactive in regard to these programs and take the role of educator and consultant, as described by Strube, by becoming familiar with the products available and guiding users to the best ones" (315).
And finally, a couple of caveats about these tools:
  • "However, these products are not a substitute for learning how to prepare a citation manually. They are not 100 percent accurate. Students need an understanding of proper citation format in order to detect errors in automatically generated citations" (315).
  • "Therefore, instruction on citation generators by librarians should include a sense of the limitations of these programs as well as the fact that the ultimate responsibility for accurate citations rests with the user" (316).
The authors suggest that further research is needed. For example, comparative studies of bibliographies generated by machine versus those written by hand.

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