A Tale of Two Citation Tools

I recently heard a presentation at ALA Annual about innovation in an age of limits. In the presentation one of the presenters discussed the citation tool EasyBib and how it was created by high school students. This got me interested in how different organizations go about creating solutions for the same problem. Compare the two about statements from notable citation companies RefWorks and EasyBib:


“Founded in 2001 by a team of experts in the field of bibliographic database management, RefWorks is dedicated to providing a high quality web-based research management, writing and collaboration tool for the academic, government and corporate research communities. Used daily by thousands of researchers in over 900 organizations globally, RefWorks supports hundreds of online databases and output styles covering a broad range of subject areas. RefWorks collaborates with some of the world’s most prestigious online information service providers including ProQuest, BioOne, EBSCO, Elsevier, HighWire, H.W. Wilson, ISI, OCLC, Ovid and Serial Solutions, to name a few.”

What comes to mind when you read that description? It sounds very serious and scholarly. They use words like “prestigious” and “experts.” This product seems designed for people who value quality, organization, and serious research. Now read the description of EasyBib:


“When we (Neal and Darshan) were in high school, we each had a huge writing assignment. We found that the most tedious part of our paper wasn’t the writing or the researching, but the bibliography itself. We had to constantly refer to our citation guides to figure out how to cite sources and where to put the periods, commas, and underlines.

Needless to say, we thought this would be a perfect application for the Web. After a few months of figuring out all the bibliography rules (Neal) and coding the site (Darshan), the first version of EasyBib launched in February 2001.

Eight years later, EasyBib is now the largest online bibliography site on the Web, visited by millions of students per month. We’ve expanded our team with some of the smartest people out there, and are going to continue building products that make life easier, faster, and better for our users.”

This description on the other hand sounds a lot less serious. This product was not created by a “team of experts.” It was created by a couple of high school kids who were annoyed with having to create a bibliography. The reason they created it is because the wanted to “make life easier, faster, and better.” That’s a great mission to have.

Looking at both of these companies they are very different, but they are trying to solve the same problem. One company sells subscriptions directly to researchers or institutions. The other company has a freemium model that allows students to create MLA citations for free, but also has paid versions with additional bells and whistles. It’s important to recognize that the way these companies solve the problem of citations appeals to different sorts of people. They both work well, but in very different ways.

My colleague Sarah, raves about RefWorks, but she is a serious researcher. And that it seems, is the market that RefWorks attracts. Faculty, grad students, researchers, anyone who is generating serious research would find RefWorks incredibly useful. Undergrads though are not serious researchers. They need to do some exploration and research, but they’re not going to be saving citations for another scholarly paper that they want to get published. They want to easily finish their bibliography with the least amount of hassle. Hence, whenever I ask what students use to do their citations in information literacy sessions, I always hear several students mention EasyBib.

In order to innovate as librarians, we must first look around and ask “what are the problems that our users need to have solved?” In this case it was the problem of citations. These problems that we identify are the opportunities for innovation. Then, we have to be careful while designing the solution and take into account our audience. Are we designing it for librarians and faculty (RefWorks)? Or are we designing it for undergraduate students (EasyBib)? EasyBib was designed by high school students. Perhaps our users should be intimately involved in the design and creation of new library services. Who knows, maybe they could even get academic credit for it…



Citations are dumb


Image from "Victory of the People" on Flickr

I really find citations to be annoying.  Who cares if you are supposed to add a period instead of a comma?  Who cares if everything gets capitalized, or only the first words?  The original point of citations was so you could refer the reader to a  relevant quote or an idea from someone else.  Well guess what.  We have a way better tool for that now. They’re called hyperlinks.

Citations are the original hyperlink. Example: A reader is cruising along reading a lengthy document on law or medicine or something equally prestigious and comes across something with which he is unfamiliar. “Golly, I sure wish I knew more about where this information came from,” he says to himself.  But lo and behold there is a little number next to the sentence he was just reading.  He glances at the bottom of the page and finds the same corresponding number next to a little note, a footnote if you will.  He is then able to follow the citation in the footnote to a completely different article and then learn more about that topic.

The same process is currently availble on the web except it is much easier.  If you see something you want to know more about, you click on it.

I can see why students cut corners and  spend as little time as possible on citations. It’s boring and it is not the reason they went to school.  I get bored to tears coming up with citation examples.  And I don’t always get the capitalization right.  Citations are not fun or glamorous.

Even though I think they’re dumb, I can still see the value in them.  Properly citing teaches you to give credit where credit is due. It teaches you to be able to separate your thoughts from other people’s thoughts. It’s also good practice following set formats and writing a certain way.  In their jobs many of these students may have to use specialized writing: things like business memos, technical writing, commenting in their code. Students have to learn sooner or later they have to be able to understand and follow specific rules for writing.

That doesn’t make it any more fun, but at least it gives them a reason why they should care about proper citations.