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Bibliographies and AA.

29 May 2012

I’ve staked a bold and indefensible claim, over on twitter, to the “do it by hand” practice of referencing documents. There are a lot of softwares out there – one especially popular version is Endnote – which many, maybe even most, of the scientists I know use to manage the references cited in papers and grants. I’ve never done this. I’ve never even opened Endnote or any other reference managing apparatus.

I do like to do a lot of things by hand. I admit. The only way I feel sure I know that the references are correct is to go through and look at them one by one. That’s probably a little OCD of me, but that’s one mental illness that I don’t exhibit any actual symptoms of. But there is something about going through a grant, identifying and placing 70-100 references in the text, it makes me read it again carefully, make sure the reference is appropriate.

Plus, few and far between are the people who’ve reported never having any problems with Endnote or other softwares. You can regularly find people complaining about it on twitter, and a quick search revealed a bunch of complaints and questions, but not a single testimonial or endorsement on the first page.

I wonder about relating this back to how I work my AA program. I have observed, but of course not studied, that the great majority of failures in early sobriety are due to the alcoholic trying to find some way to address their problem that isn’t so damned hard. And yes, doing the work you have to do in AA to stay sober is often hard. It’s grueling to do a full, honest fourth step. So many people seem to try to solve their problems without having to do their work, or without having to entirely give up drinking.

Those people fail. Very few and far between are the people who walk through the doors of AA and then later return to be normal successful drinkers. I’d suspect that those people are somehow fundamentally not the same as I am, as my fellow hopeless alcoholics are. But of course, I don’t know anything for certain about them. I know only that they are vanishingly rare, and that I am not one of them. Nor do I want to be.

I tend to do a lot of things the hard way. Because I have found that trying to do things the easy way doesn’t work for me. Not long term.

Now, I’ve never tried Endnote, so I can’t say that using it is “the easy way” or not. But I know that bibliographies are tedious and dull to put together. And I know that  a lot of people have tried to find tools to improve that task. And, of course, as a human, I have nothing against developing tools. I just don’t know that we’ve found a good one for this task yet. And I know that I, personally, derive utility from doing it the hard way. From that last look through the document.

The metaphor breaks down of course. In AA, avoiding the hard work is a way for our addiction to continue to satisfy itself. In science, software like Endnote is an attempt to get all of the work done well, in an efficient manner. But I get to try to find meaning in my own labor the way that I feel fits me best. And I like doing this by hand. I feel it connects me with my work.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 May 2012 09:14

    Dude, stop justifying your 1970’s reference placing style. I’ve been using EndNote since it came out in the 80’s and its been awesome. It’s not that you don’t place the references in one by one, you still do this by hand, it’s just the formatting (and reformatting that is easier). I recently had to reformat a paper from an author-date style to a numbered style and it took me all of 10 minutes, as opposed to 2 hours. End Note has been one of the most useful pieces of software I’ve used, next to a word processor. Why don’t you use a typewriter for your grants if you like doing things by hand?

  2. 29 May 2012 12:42

    I agree, and moreover I have tried keeping libraries in EndNote, BibTeX and Zotero – not one of them is as good as doing it by hand.

    I found that the time I saved with EndNote etc. was all taken back again with tinkering, locating refs, fixing glitches in the formatting, ITALICIZING @!$@% SPECIES NAMES, solving compatibility problems and general headache. Doing it by hand saves tons of time compared to the faff involved in maintaining a database. This is one case where the Luddites win by a country mile!

  3. 29 May 2012 12:55

    The difference that James fails to mention, and that namezia acknowledges, is that EndNote removes the burden of rechecking reference formats every time you write a paper (or a note in which you include references, or your CV, or a grant, etc). You do have to check each of the references in your library for correctly italicised species names and the like, but you only have to do that ONCE; if you do the check thoroughly, from that point on the reference is complete, You can then use the power of having your references in a customised database to insert and reformat them with nearly zero effort.

    It really is worth trying, though you should be cognisant of the need to put some time into the reference importing and tidying process. Whatever happened to “don’t knock it until you’ve tried it”?

    Also, I’ve been a vocal proponent of EndNote (and you know that, silly) so I feel you are painting it in a bad light; I’m off to go tweet about its platitudes so someone doing a similar search can find a spark of hope about the program’s utility rather than a depressing lot of Twitter search results.

    • 29 May 2012 12:56

      Pardon the errant comma that snuck in my comment above when I wasn’t looking. 😉

      • 29 May 2012 12:58

        I can tolerate dissent, even vicious slander. But misplaced punctuation!? NEVER!!!

      • 29 May 2012 13:15

        You’re completely right, of course, but I’m afraid I still beg to differ (having tried it several times before knocking it 😉

        I’m a behavioural ecologist and hence all about the costs and benefits. It is naturally an immense pain to reformat references (especially numbered to harvard, or vice versa). But that is quite a rare occurrence, so you only incur this cost rarely. (I don’t submit to Nature/Science/PNAS very often!!)

        However, in order to have EndNote change reference formats flawlessly, first time, for all references (e.g. not only articles but theses, computer programs, websites, random things like R, etc) you have to have an immaculately maintained database – all volumes, pages, publishers, editors, versions, etc. in place. Almost NONE of the downloadable RIS-formatted citations are completely correct for all reference formats. I have found that, for me at least, the constant drip-drip of wasted time spent checking them stacks up to a higher total “cost” than the rare case when you have to change them all by hand. That is just my experience anyway!

  4. 29 May 2012 18:31

    As usually I’m an oddball. I use endnote, but I don’t actually use it for writing up my reference page, because it did have some problems with the AAA formatting style. I basically use it to keep all of my notes for each article/book I read, and I use the keyword DB aspect to my advantage. For example, if I were thinking of writing a grant about Native Americans and medical practices I would first open my endnote and search the keywords ‘native’ ‘medicine’ and ‘North America’ to see what I already have. This way I can still easily access books I read during 1st year of grad school 10 years later. ‘oh yeah, i forgot that so-and-so talked about migration in that book’.

    Every time I read a new article, I add it to endnote, and i take my notes ‘in’ the notes section of endnote. then i create keywords for the article and move on.

    Also, I’ve heard Zotero works pretty well. But the folks I know are all biased, as 1/2 of them work for the Center for History and New Media, which made it.

  5. Angela permalink
    30 May 2012 03:38

    I have never used endnote, but I always write in LaTeX with a .bib file. Works nicely.

  6. 30 May 2012 04:29

    I can remember back in the dark ages, writing out references on index cards and cataloging all my reprints. I did the Literature Cited by hand for publications. It just seemed more intuitive to me. And I still would write papers in long hand before re-typing them on a computer. I think better with pad and pen.

    • 30 May 2012 08:36

      I still do this for the historical documents I work with! Funny that for modern journal articles I use endnote, but when I’m data mining documents I still prefer index cards.

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