If you know all too well what the title is talking about, just skip to the last section of this article for the main point. If you don’t know but you’re interested in a really efficient research and bibliography management system, read on for a little background.
BibDesk: iTunes for Researchers
When I started writing my senior thesis a few weeks ago, I needed to find dozens of articles and books, review and annotate them, and keep track of which ones I had read. In the past, for term papers, etc, I would usually just cite articles and books stacked up on my desk, and then when I was finished I’d make a list of which ones I’d cited and type out their bibliographical info in a “Works Cited” page. But for my thesis, I was planning to have a full bibliography of more than a hundred documents, so this was not something I could do in my head.
So I went online and found what seemed like the perfect solution: BibDesk. Bibdesk lets you automatically import bibliographic info from most online databases or enter it manually. You can sort your bibliography by any field, insert your own annotations or comments on an item, link items to pdf or other files on your computer, and search the whole bibliography in a flash. Unlike Zotero, it is not a Firefox plugin and so you can use it independently of your browser (a plus for me, since I don’t do all my research on the web and I don’t like Zotero’s restricted window space), and unlike programs such as Evernote or Google Docs (programs I’ve used in the past), it is focused on the sources themselves rather than your notes on them.
Moreover, BibDesk’s database files are in the standard BibTex (.bib) format, which makes exporting and importing bibliographies easy with most programs.
The Export Problem
Unfortunately, a few days of research had passed by before I discovered that BibDesk cannot conveniently export an MLA “Works Cited” page. The BibTex format generated by BibDesk is part of the Tex typesetting system and designed to supplement LaTex format papers. If you are writing a paper in LaTex format, you can easily use BibDesk to insert a bibliography at the end, automatically including only the works you’ve cited in your paper.
When I first found this out, I went ahead and downloaded Lyx, a word processor that does a great job creating LaTex format documents. As LaTex users are eager to point out, Latex is a WYSIWYM (What You See Is What You Mean) word processor, unlike the common WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processors like MS Word or Open Office. Translated, that means that you can’t edit the formatting of LaTex documents; you just select a template called a “class” that arranges your headings, citations, footnotes, and paragraphs into a beautiful document. That works great unless you need to use a format that no one has made a class for—it is brain-crushingly difficult to create your own class.
You’ve probably guessed my problem: There is no good class available for MLA documents. The citations don’t work well, the headings don’t look right, and the bibliography just doesn’t work. Writing my thesis in LaTex format would be a nightmare.
So I tried to export a nice-looking bibliography file in HTML or RTF format directly from BibDesk. Once again, there was trouble. To generate a good “Works Cited” page from BibDesk you need a special template for MLA, APA or some other format. And once again, there is no good template of the sort online. Believe me, I’ve looked!
The Solution: Zotero As a Middleman
After hours and hours of searching for a way to get an MLA format bibliography from BibDesk or Lyx, I remembered Zotero. As I mentioned earlier, Zotero is an out-of-this world research tool a lot like BibDesk that I don’t use only because it’s a Firefox plugin rather than an independent program.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of the solution earlier, it’s so simple. I just
- downloaded Zotero and installed it with Firefox 3;
- imported my BibTex bibliography (a .bib file) into Zotero; and
- exported the bibliography from Zotero into an MLA-style “Works Cited” page, as an RTF document.
The output was perfectly styled and ready to paste into my thesis whenever I was ready for it.
The Ups And Downs
Of course, the downside of this approach is that the citations are not automatic. that is, you have to go through your paper and manually find what sources you’ve cited so you know which ones to included in your “Works Cited” page. Using LaTex all the way would solve this problem because citations are special fields rather than just text, and the bibliography is generated based on which ones you’ve used.
However, if all you’re looking for is bibliography management and want to do the citing and writing yourself, I can’t think of a better solution. The BibDesk/Zotero combination makes it easy to keep track of what sources you’ve used, read, and found and what you think of them, as well as to search, sort, and add them to your document as a flawlessly-styled bibliography.