‘So what do we tell the students to use for their referencing?’

This was the question put to me several times during the staff development day on 16 November 2015, while I manned a ‘stall’ in the morning (with Linzi McKerr) and facilitated a workshop in the afternoon (with Anthony Barnett, and Darren Cooper from ISES), both covering bibliographic management software. A simple question with a not-so-straightforward answer!

Students are often on the lookout for a simple tool that will do the mechanical task of referencing for them, putting dots and commas in the right place, and displaying all the elements of a reference for any given source with ease. We often come under pressure to ‘teach’ referencing, and recommend the tool which will solve all their problems.

When considering a response to such requests, an internal conflict flares up:

‘But referencing is an academic skill, it is part of your writing, you can’t expect a tool to do the work for you…. Then again, I can see that if you are new to academic writing, or find that referencing is problematic for other reasons (e.g. dyslexia), a tool might help…. There is no good time to ‘teach’ referencing, if it can be taught, you need to have a go and practice, and get feedback to develop this skill… Just follow the Harvard guide, you can’t go wrong!’

However, after some constructive and interesting discussions with colleagues on Monday, I’m starting to think about whether we should be making students more aware of their options. If they want to use a tool, can we recommend one (or more)? How do we manage their expectations of what these tools can do? When is the ‘best’ time to introduce the concept of reference management? (Indeed, when is the ‘best’ time to ‘teach’ Harvard referencing, and how??) Will they understand it all early on, or is it yet another ‘thing’ they have to learn?

I’m not sure I have the answers to all the questions posed above just yet, but perhaps there are discussions to be had which could take those questions forward. Leaving aside the wider issues of referencing policy, and the integration of academic skills teaching throughout university curricula,  I thought it would be useful to add a blog post on #thelearningconversation which points towards some of the available bibliographic management tools which might help.

Al the tools I’ve played with investigated so far are covered on a short document available here. My prezi from the workshop is here. At the risk of seeming a little biased, here are two tools I particularly like:

Mendeley: If you want to know more about what this can do, Darren Cooper is your man! He presented a great introduction to the tool during the afternoon workshop, demonstrating how he uses it for his research to manage his papers and references, and how he uses it with colleagues and students in a collaborative way. With Mendeley, you can save references, add PDFs, manage your references into folders, export bibliographies and cite while you write in Word. UW Harvard style is available in Mendeley. More information here. Zotero offers similar functionality; Anthony Barnett offered his insights during the workshop, showing how the tool can be easily used online to collect and store references.

RefMe: this strikes me as a little more basic compared to Mendeley, but this might be a bonus for new students and undergraduates. It is web-based, so saved references are stored and managed online, in a RefMe account. The UW Harvard style is available so bibliographies can be created and copied/pasted or inserted into Word. It works best with Chrome browser. You can add an extension (browser button) called a web clipper, which can save references you find to your RefMe library. There’s even an app which scans barcodes of books and pulls the reference into your library. More information here.

As with any tool though, it won’t always get it right 100% of the time. Students must be prepared to proof-read and tweak the output before submitting any assignment!

Sarah Purcell



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