Why citation software should be avoided

Carol Fisher Saller is a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press and an editor of the Chicago Manual of Style. Ms. Saller also contributes to a new collaborative blog with several writers and university professors of English and linguistics entitled Lingua Franca, hosted by the website The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In a recent blog post, “Citation Software, or How to Make a Perfect Mess,” Ms. Saller describes the problems inherent to the use of citation software like EndNote, RefWorks, and Zotero:

Browsing the tutorials at YouTube, you can quickly perceive the power and usefulness of citation software applications like EndNote, RefWorks, and Zotero, which promise to format footnotes and bibliographies with the click of a mouse. But all three of the videos I viewed at random showed even practiced tutors hitting potholes—for instance, here (“Oh, no—I don’t like to have this title—I want to have the short form”) and here (“It looks like this reference isn’t correct … but let’s just pretend it’s right”) and here (“Go back to your Word file, and OK, let’s go look for it … OK, it didn’t come over … what you’re gonna need to do is … ”).

Ms. Saller confirms what I have asserted in other blog posts, like “Source Citations: Why Form Matters,” parts one, two, three, and four. “[A]ll I ask is that a style be reasonable and consistent,” she writes. She continues to note the problems with the citation software:

But instead, thanks to the use of citation software, I frequently encounter the use of notes style in the bibliography and vice versa, all perfectly and disastrously consistent. The result for the reader is confusion and inconvenience.

No one can deny that we are living in a digital world ruled by the slogan, “There’s an app for that!” But when creating source citations, we don’t need a software that can do it for us. Ms. Saller begins her post by stating,

Preparing notes and bibliographies in a consistent style has long been one of the less glamorous tasks of academic writing. And now, with the increasing use—or rather misuse—of citation software, it is surely one of the most rapidly degenerating.

Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007), wrote,

Citation is an art, not a science. As budding artists, we learn the principles —from color and form to shape and texture. Once we have mastered the basics, we are free to improvise. Through that improvisation, we capture the uniqueness of each subject or setting. As historians, we use words to paint our interpretations of past societies and their surviving records. In order to portray those records, we learn certain principles of citation—principles that broadly apply to various types of historical materials. Yet records and artifacts are like all else in the universe: each can be unique in its own way. Therefore, once we have learned the principles of citation, we have both an artistic license and a researcher’s responsibility to adapt those principles to fit materials that do not match any standard model. [p. 41]

It is precisely this nature of citations as art rather than science that we must cling to as researchers. So many researchers that I know use Evidence Explained solely for its templates, but have not taken the time to learn the principles behind these templates. Once you understand basic citation principles, you no longer find yourself running to the index of the 800-plus-page tome to figure out how to cite this record or that.

Source citation software cannot learn the art. It can use a template, and create a standard citation from a standard work. There is not a single app in existence that could create the Mona Lisa. There are many that can reproduce the painting from a template, but none that can capture the essence of the subject.


Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007.

Saller, Carol Fisher. “Citation Software, or How to Make a Perfect Mess.” Lingua Franca blog. Posted 12 September 2011. http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca : 2011.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Why citation software should be avoided,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 21 Sep 2011 (https://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

4 thoughts on “Why citation software should be avoided

  1. “There’s an app for that.” Oh, how I wish it were true! Not for citation software, which I’ve never used, never tried, and never been tempted to try. But event-based historical research software. But that’s another topic.

  2. I realize that I may the lone voice in saying this and that I’m repeating something I’ve said on numerous occasions, but I think citations get shorted at genealogical institutes. Learning to write proper citations is as important as learning to write research plans and reports or improving writing skills. However, covering citations in education always seems to be tacked onto classes as an aside emphasizing their importance, but not covering them to the extent needed. Considering the number of questions posted about citations demonstrating confusion, I don’t understand why more courses have not been developed to cover this very important part of what we do. As far as the words, “avoid citation software” go–you can light those up with red, blinking neon-lights. Not because of faulty software, but because technology cannot duplicate the complex thought process that takes place when we decide how we organize citation elements. (After all, we have choices.)

  3. Disclaimer: I’m an amateur genealogist, not a professional. I don’t know what all the to do is about. Citations are easy, or should be. Simply provide a key at the beginning of how your citations are organized, then include who,what, when, where, and where found. That should be sufficient for anyone to find it and verify it, if possible. Why do we need an 800+ page book for that? I can assure you, I will never read it. I’m probably a lone voice in the wilderness though. To Steve, if you’ve never tried it, how do you really know it’s not true? I also note the only bad examples are for EndNote. None of the others quoted have examples of bad citation. Seems rather short shrift. The old adage, you go looking for the bad in something, you will surely find it. Or the one about axes to grind. I like the idea of being able to add citations with a click and a few keystrokes. I have other things in life to do besides write citations.

  4. Pingback: Why we don’t always need source citation templates … « Planting the Seeds

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