News | Academics

With grant, libraries make tool to simplify citations

For most Columbia undergraduates, making bibliographic citations boils down to a few formatting styles, like MLA and Chicago, to learn in University Writing.

But for professors, researchers, and graduate students, there are over 1900 different styles to contend with. Their lives might be about to get a little bit easier—the Columbia University Libraries received a $125,000 grant last month to build a new digital tool to help manage existing styles and make new ones.

In collaboration with Mendeley, a private developer of reference management software, the Libraries hope to develop a simple, graphical interface with which authors can navigate the maze of styles available, and modify them to create their own.

“Basically every journal requires a different citation style, and these change over time,” Jan Reichelt, the co-founder of Mendeley, said.

Furthermore, researchers often wish to modify existing styles to meet particular needs. Most styles are encoded in a programming markup language called CSL, similar to HTML, the basic language of websites, but “more complicated,” Jeffrey Lancaster, GSAS ’11 and the leader of the project for the libraries, said.

As a graduate student in chemistry, Lancaster wanted to modify a citation style to include an additional feature like a hyperlink for each bibliographic reference, but found that “it’s not as simple as you might think.”

The new tool is meant to “empower researchers to be more flexible” in crafting custom styles, Reichelt said. The tool will incorporate a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor,” enabling users to drag and drop fields to add to styles.

The collaboration, funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, was praised by both parties. At Mendeley, “they have extensive knowledge to build on already” in working digitally with citation styles, said Lancaster, who is also a Mendeley advisor.

He anticipates that a prototype of the new tool will be done around the end of April, after which the libraries and Mendeley will reach out to the Columbia community to find beta-testers.

The tool, which will be built on open-source software, will likely include the ability to share new citation styles with other users. Theoretically, the interface itself could even be adapted to other markup languages, like HTML.

According to Lancaster, the project has received an enthusiastic response from the scholarly community.

“People seem really excited about this, which is good,” he said. “Mendeley has a feedback forum, and this is something that people have been asking about for a long, long time; we’re hoping to sort of fill that need with it.”

Students also spoke positively when asked about the prospects of the project.

Second-year law student Lars van Amsterdam said that the development of a more user-friendly citation tool could prevent students from being dissuaded from entering academia.

“It’s a positive thing—as students, we could publish more,” he said. “When we write articles, we’re asked to cite almost everything. It’s complicated for people because you have to use so many different styles.”

Deborah Kerzhner, a third-year law student, thought that streamlining citation would benefit students across all disciplines.

“I think it would be useful,” she said. “It makes sense—it’s something they should have done long ago.”

Jeremy Budd contributed reporting.


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