Two years ago, I adopted EasyBib as my primary citation subscription service for a multitude of reasons, but the driving factor was to spend less time on the mechanics of citation and more time helping students and teachers dwell in research projects from an inquiry oriented stance.  Although we had always had high database usage statistics, that did not always translate into those sources finding their way into student projects and papers to the extent we would expect given our high number of hits; we knew from observation in the past that the primary reason was the amount of time and struggle it took students to create entries using the database wizard with another citation tool.  While we very much liked the original citation tool we had been using, our students were not coming with enough prior knowledge or usage for it to be the best fit for them as learners.    Within the first year of adoption, we noticed some significant changes:

1.  Students were not only citing more database sources in their bibliographies, but they were also incorporating the database content more into the body of their paper as paraphrased and directly quoted material.

2.  Because less instructional and working time was spent on citation mechanics with EasyBib, students were spending more times reading their articles critically and having opportunities to reflect on the content individually and with their peers in small groups.

3.  Teachers were more willing to devote longer chunks of  time and take more of an inquiry stance on research projects since they knew the citation piece of the learning experience would be more seamless and would not take as much time for students to complete.  Being able to invest more time in designing  inquiry driven projects using Stripling’s model of inquiry and helping teachers move along that continuum was exciting and energizing; for some teachers, it was also a pathway to pushing back against the pressures of testing.

At the time of our adoption in midwinter, we thought we had jumped light years ahead by being able to download .ris files to then import into EasyBib.  I have vivid memories of students AND teachers clapping when I showed them this fast new method that  felt like a revolution in citation.   That fall, we saw a glimpse of the next wave of citation innovation when we trialed Sage databases and saw one-click integration of direct export for the first time with EasyBib.  Not that it was terrible to download the .ris file with the publication data and then upload it to EasyBib, but to see that citation could be done so seamlessly in one click was a tantalizing possibility to imagine for other databases.

In August 2013, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I were overjoyed when we learned that Gale Virtual Reference Library and Gale Literature Resource Center had been re-configured to offer the ease of one-click citation export and integration with EasyBib. That feature was then enhanced to be even a little cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing in December.  Our only disappointment was that the feature was not yet integrated into our Gale “In Context” databases.  Because we are fortunate to have access to quite a few of these databases in that particular series, we often felt frustrated trying to explain to our students why the one-click integration was available in some Gale databases but not in others.    For young teens who did not have the same schema we did as experienced researchers, this discrepancy was sometimes difficult for them to grasp even though we had created tutorial videos to reinforce the “how to” steps we showed in person.  Worse, this feature was not only missing from the EBSCO databases that we were using as part of our research guides, but the direct export feature failed to deliver the file with the .ris extension essential for EasyBib to read the data file, so students also had to remember to rename the file and add the .ris extension.   For fledgling researchers, these differences and the appropriate steps for exporting citations from one database to another, even those under the same publisher, were sometimes challenging to remember.

student-resource-center-easybibexport-march14As of this week, the beautiful one click citation feature is now available in all the Gale In Context databases.   I literally felt like dancing around the library when I discovered the platforms had been migrated and sooner than I anticipated!  Some of our students came in this morning and said, “Ms. Hamilton, did you know Student Resources in Context now has that one click choice?!”  Jennifer and I were beaming as we discussed the ways this small but important change might help us in our larger efforts to reframe, disrupt,  and transform research experiences here at NHS as acts of inquiry across the curriculum.  If you are in a school that might be facing challenges of a large student body and faculty with a premium on spaces and time for research both within the library and the school building at large as well as curricular and testing mandates, a technology that is seemingly so simple can be a catalyst in how you budget your time for research instruction.   Now that we will have consistency in citation export within our  suite of Gale databases, we anticipate less confusion with this piece of research and more student confidence in using both the databases as well as EasyBib.  Now that we will be spending less time explaining why there are differences in the steps for exporting the citations, we are excited that hopefully more time will be spent incorporating learning experiences that will give students time to engage in deeper inquiry  and to think more deliberately about their research and composing (in whatever format the final product takes).  Of course, we hope that EBSCO will transform their direct export feature soon to be consistent with the Gale experience our students now have.

bibcardWhen we think about the catalysts for richer learning experiences that can shift perceptions about research as a one shot activity to something that is a natural part of an inquiry-driven culture of learning, we know that school culture, collaborative partnerships and strategies, physical space and the design drivers that inform those spaces, testing and curricular mandates, and pedagogical shifts are all important points of access.  As we try to help our students acquire the academic capital and citizenship skills they need as learners who attribute and share information in appropriate and ethical ways, I wonder how shifts in citation technology will impact learners and research experiences in ways we don’t yet foresee. Think about how approaches to citation have changed in your own lifetime (some of us more than others) due to the technologies available for both citing and accessing digitized information sources.  I honestly don’t remember much about crafting bibliographies as a newbie researcher in my junior year although I have vivid memories of painstakingly crafting footnotes, a tedious task.  In my senior year of high school as well as my undergraduate years, I relied heavily on the MLA handbook and resources provided by teachers/professors.   When I began teaching in 1992, my students used index cards and a MLA handbook to cite sources cite sources.  By the time I was a technology specialist in my district’s Technology Services department in 1999 , a free version of NoodleTools had arrived on the scene, and I was tinkering around with that before moving to a paid version purchased by my district.   As a graduate student between 2001-2005, I relied heavily on my NoodleTools subscription to help me format my citations for scholarly research; at the same time, I began incorporating NoodleTools into my instruction at Cherokee High first as an English teacher and then as one of the school’s librarians.   I marvel when I think about the changes in citation technology (or lack of) and how it impacted my work as a teacher and researcher over twenty years.

I can’t help but wonder what the implications are for learners (K12, undergraduate, and even graduate) who do AND who don’t have access to these technologies for research and learning.  How does access or lack thereof impact the learner experience and students’ information literacy skills? How do these changes impact the ways people compose research-based writing and literacy practices as readers of informational texts in a variety of mediums and formats?  How might less emphasis on the mechanics of citation change people’s perceptions and connotations of “research”? How do these technologies and access or lack of access to them function as sponsors of literacy?  These are questions I’ll be pondering as I continue to think about the ways libraries function as sponsors of literacy in their communities and learning ecosystems.

25 thoughts on “Advances in Citation Management Technologies: How Do They Shape Inquiry and Literacies?

  1. I have been an avid EasyBib user, and purchased a subscription for my previous campus. (I was even one of their featured customers from way back.)

    I saw many of the same benefits for our students and teachers that you mention, though I am sure I could not explain those benefits as eloquently as you. The one area I’d like to explore in the future is the removal of the mechanical aspects of research to focus more heavily on inquiry as the basis for research, both in academic life and in real life. Adults do not conduct research to write a paper, they conduct research to answer a question or to explore a topic further. Tools like EasyBib help us remove one major barrier to making learning through research fun – the citations. While they are necessary, and students must learn to give credit by citing their sources, writing citations is a tedious task. I too am interested in seeing what will come of our learners when they can conduct research to (gasp!) learn something vs conduct research with a product (such as a paper) in mind. Please keep writing on this topic!


  2. Perfect timing for this informative article, we just signed on to EasyBib yesterday! Students are very excited. Thank you.


  3. This is a great discussion. I can see that you would measure the sources of information by sampling submitted papers. How are you measuring their spending more time reading? Do you reflect with the instructors, interview with a set of questions? Please write more. I found that EasyBib was not as useful as Son of Citation Machine for web documents. However, I am very excited by this new development with Gale. We share the same concern. Students need to be able to develop a topic or pose a question (requires effort and thinking) and then read for information, a skill which many need to acquire and refine.


  4. Very timely post for me and my students! I’ve taught students how to copy and paste the citation from Gale and other databases into EasyBib. Yesterday, one student showed me the export feature in SIRS, and I am thrilled to see that all of my Gale resources have the same function. What I most appreciate about your reflection is that you created a strong argument for the utilization of these tools and their impact on inquiry and research perceptions. Thank you for sharing!


    1. Hi Audrey! Yes, the export feature really is awesome! We no longer have SIRS, but I’m happy to hear that the export is now a feature for that database, too. I appreciate your feedback on the post, and we’ll keep the conversation going! Best, Buffy


  5. Just curious, are most people OK with the few errors that occur when using this export process? Do you tell your students to delete the URLs? I am wondering if I am being to strict when I teach citations at my high school. Thanks!


    1. Hi Floyd! Both definitely have attractive features. At the time I made the transition, here were my reasons for doing so: I haven’t used the new version of NoodleTools, but I’ve heard good feedback from colleagues about it. I was just at a point a couple of years ago that I could not wait any longer for the upgrades we needed for our learning community. Once we made the chance and I saw how readily my teachers and students embraced it, there was no looking back. Best, Buffy


  6. I am also a fan of using any auto-formatting, time-saving feature available to students. However I’ve also noticed a correcsponding increase in the number of students who use the autoformat and have no understanding of the parts of a citation. So as they become more adept at creating an auto-citation they are not developing the critical thinking skills that goes along with interpreting parts of a citation. And as they move on through the education system, it becomes more important because they if they are given a citation and told to read an article, or try to locate an in-text citation, they aren’t capable of breaking identifying discrete parts of the citation in order to locate articles. It is still necessary for students (at least at our university) to drill down through a database to a journal then volume, then issue etc. before they arrive at an article, and until they are taught to interpret citations won’t be able to find the materials they are looking for.


    1. Hi Debbie! Your points about knowing the pieces of citation have been the subject of many a Twitter chat! I think if you build in constructive learning activities to help them understand the parts of a citation and why that matters, then the scenario you describe can be avoided. Sara Kelley-Mudie has a really great post related to this topic at Most times this can be accomplished when you are teaching concepts of parenthetical references and the idea that the reference should match up to the first part of each entry on the Works Cited/References page and those skills would then translate to the tasks you identified.

      As more academic libraries develop collaborative partnerships with faculty for instruction and research guide building, I think more students will have access to virtual as well as face to face assistance if they need it when given those tasks. While I agree students should know the basic parts of a citation, being able to do deeper research and write a better paper (or whatever the end product might be) is more of a pressing concern for me. If autociting can help lead to that kind of work, I’ll take that over being able to identify discrete parts of an article to locate a specific source.

      I appreciate your perspective and observations–I wonder if other academic librarians who read this blog are wrestling with this challenge as well? Best, Buffy


  7. This is a bit off topic but we just received a copy of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger (Bloomsbury) and I immediately thought of you and this post and other thoughts you’ve shared about inquiry-based approaches. Didn’t want you to miss it!


  8. My school uses Noodletools, which has been a big help in organzing students’ thoughts, notes, and citations. In the past two to three years, I’ve noticed increased struggles in understanding and writing citations. The parts of a citation can be fuzzy concepts to grasp if one hasn’t held a physical copy of a magazine, journal, or reference source since elementary or middle school. And in an age of pingbacks and hat tips, writing citations is tedious.

    … Wow… after writing “pingbacks and hat tips,” I feel like we just got one step closer to living in Idiocracy. I’m confident that feeling has more to do with having grown up handwriting citations on index cards though.

    Even with a citation service, it seems like students spend more time asking about citation formatting and parts of the citation than they do asking the real questions or more beautiful questions (to reference a book mentioned in the comments).

    There are many moving parts that contribute to the disconnect between students’ experience and the business of citations. Like Len, I believe that giving credit to one’s sources matters. I believe in the “appropriate and ethical” sharing of ideas and information. I am starting to wonder more and more about the endgame. For what are we preparing students? Writing in college? Then what? I’ve watched about 10 years worth of classes graduate. Many of the students are producing great things and taking part in thoughtful conversations. Very few of them are doing traditional academic writing.

    I agree with Len in that most adults aren’t researching to write a paper. Their research may manifest itself in compelling blog posts (with pingbacks and hat tips!), a Youtube tutorial, or some other artifact with more fluid means for giving credit.

    I’m still very much trying to sort out my thoughts and opinions, both personal and professional. I appreciate the post and the dialogue taking part as a result of it.


    1. Melanie, as always, you are so thoughtful in your reflections. I’m glad you mentioned writing—audiences, purposes, and context beyond college and looking at writing in the real-world. These are questions I’ve been contemplating, too. These issues and questions about writing are ones I’m actually going to be trying to unravel a bit in my next few posts for DMLcentral—the first should be up later this week, so I welcome your thoughts there, too, as we try to unpack and sort out our thinking together! Thank you again for contributing to the conversation and pushing our thinking! Best, Buffy


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