Imagine a colleague insisting that his students memorize the URLs of the top 20 websites in his field, as well as keep abreast of any changes in those URLs. Would that make sense? Of course not. Students can find any of those sites through a Google search. There is no reason to remember URLs anymore. Technology has taken that task off our hands, and we are glad that it has. It is more important to teach “information literacy,” which is how to find the proper source when necessary.
Yet faculty are doing no better than teaching URLs when they toil over citation mistakes in their feedback to students. Citation software takes the work out of memorizing the host of citation methods out there and keeping updated on their latest versions. These systems can extract bibliographic information from a source automatically, or have the user enter it into fields manually. Once the information is stored, the user can tell the system to export his or her work in whatever citation style is desired.
Most important, toiling over citation rules in your feedback to students takes time and attention away from teaching the deep concepts in your field that should be the focus of any faculty member. You were hired for your understanding of business, philosophy, history, etc.—not of citation style. Your focus should be on those topics that define expertise in your field. Citation style is the worry of copyeditors, a job that requires only an undergraduate degree.
Don't throw away all the years and effort spent earning your PhD by turning yourself into a copyeditor. Take that duty off your shoulders by having students use citation software that puts their work into the correct format to begin with. There are quite a few excellent, free citation software programs out there that do the citation legwork for them. Here are some of the best.
The granddaddy of them all, Zotero basically opened the citation software field and is still one of the best systems available. The software automatically extracts bibliographic information from a website to allow users to format their work with a touch of a button. Zotero integrates itself into the user's browser to allow for very simple one-click saving of site information. Originally developed as a research tool, the system has since expanded into a general purpose note-taking and information organization system similar to Evernote. It allows the user to add notes to sources that have been captured and organize those sources into libraries, as well as tag them for easy search. It syncs across multiple computers and even hosts large communities of researchers who share their favorite sources.
EasyBib Bibliography Creator (www.easybib.com)
EasyBib Bibliography Creator is a new Google Drive add-on that allows users to add a bibliography to their Google docs in a variety of formats. With the doc open, you merely search for the resource through a sidebar, and when you find it, click a button to have the bibliographic information added to the document. While somewhat limited in citation methods, it's remarkably easy to use (it's Google, after all) and effective.
EasyBib differs from the other options in that it is an online system rather than a software application that is downloaded and run off the user's computer. However, it does have an iPad app that would appeal to the mobile-inclined. The app has a useful feature that allows users to scan a book's ISBN to generate a bibliography. The one drawback is that the free subscription generates bibliographies only in MLA format—other formats require a paid subscription.
It also comes with a free Google Docs add-on that allows you to search for the resource through a sidebar. When you find the resource, you can click a button to have the bibliographic information added to the document. However, the reviews for this add-on have been mixed, as it appears to be buggy. Consider ProQuest Flow below as an alternative.
Scrible is actually a cloud-based bookmarking tool like Diigo that allows you to capture and annotate good websites. But it also includes a feature that allows you to save and format bibliographies, which could make it an attractive alternative to Diigo for bookmarking.
CiteThisForMe is a straightforward and easy-to-use citation tool that allows users to either grab bibliographic information automatically from a Web page or enter it manually into fields. Once information is entered, the student can produce a bibliography in a variety of formats to be added to any work. Once nice feature is its understanding of citation styles for podcasts, videos, and even emails.
ProQuest Flow (www.proquest.com/products-services/flow.html)
ProQuest Flow is a new Google Docs add-on that has gotten good reviews. Place the “save to flow” button on your toolbar, and when you land on a Web page that you want to reference, just click it and the system will extract the bibliographic information and enter it into your permanent reference library. You can also manually enter reference information, or enter a document and have the system extract the reference information from it. You can then have the system enter both in-text and bibliographic citations for your document in what it claims to be any of 4,000 reference styles.
Understanding how to use citation software is a form of information literacy and is the equivalent of learning how to do online searches rather than memorizing URLs. Encourage—no, require—your students to use these programs. That understanding will serve them now and in the future.
John Orlando writes, consults, and teaches faculty how to use technology to improve learning. He helped build and direct distance learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University and has written more than 50 articles and delivered more than 60 workshops on teaching with technology. John is the associate director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Northcentral University, serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board, and is a regular contributor to Online Classroom.