Saturday 6 April 2019

My Cursed Referencing = Google Scholar citation imports + legacy Refworks

A cautionary tale for researchers using legacy Refworks and importing citations via Google Scholar (hint: it's not a "shortcut").

The Academic Referencing Horror Story- a neglected genre?

There seems to be a dearth of blogposts that share academic referencing disasters in detail. This should not be surprising, since all the role-players in such dramas have little to gain from sharing their time-sucking examples: Scholarly search engines and referencing software conceal their flaws within legalese and support departments. Institutions will not spotlight their limitations in offering minimal support. Academics' reputations may suffer for sharing referencing mistakes. Even students who share their frustrations and experiences publicly (i.e. via tweets) seem to lack the motivation for elaborating these into lengthier narratives (e.g. a twitter roll). Further, since the costs are paid by the "free time" and suffering of individuals, there seems to be "no need" for systemic interventions that might address the attendant losses of scholars' time and morale.

On the flipside, students and researchers who lack examples of what to avoid MUST be widely repeating the errors of their peers, surely? This may range from colleagues within a particular university to software users globally whose experiences of a service's functionality differs from its promises. Just, maybe, the downside of sharing academic referencing horror stories SHOULD not trump the importance of providing important learnings for online audiences?!

In the spirit of being transparent about such disasters for others to avoid similar suffering, here's 'My Cursed Referencing'. It compiles key incidents with a cast of fellow researchers, an Apple laptop running Microsoft Word 2010, Google Scholar, Refworks Legacy and ProQuest versions plus support, the University of Cape Town, plus yours-victim-truly.


The internet was just becoming a thing when I completed my MA thesis using Claris Works in 1997, so I was pretty much an online referencing virgin when I returned to university 12 years later. In terms of this type of software, Refworks seemed the obvious choice. It was offered as a free tool at UCT and seemed easy to access and use. Besides, which PhD candidate can prioritise the time to: (i) research the universe of referencing software and compare their upsides and downsides, (ii) check they will install on Mac and integrate well with his or her university library's back-end, plus (iii) investigate if the support post-purchase will be sound? Doing the PhD reading on 'Diffusion Model of Innovation' and 'Concerns Based Adoption Model' was daunting enough, thanks...

The Unknown Evil of using Google Scholar exports for creating a bibliography
If Google Scholar valued 'Don't Be Evil', its 'import reference' function would be labelled 'import an (in)complete reference' as a fair warning. A bibliography made up of such exports for recent journal articles may well be accurate and complete. BUT should your sources range across old books, scholarly dissertations and online sources, be vigilant. Your citations are probably incomplete AND imported in the wrong format (i.e. a 'book section' can be indexed as a 'journal article' by default).

Evils is Even (bad things come in twos)
I was alerted to this conundrum after presenting a draft of 'Capital meets Capabilities' to the Technology in Education Postgraduate Researchers group in January, 2018. A senior researcher observed, 'You didn't generate your references with software'. Stunned, I answered that indeed I had. After requesting that he highlight the errors in my bibliography, I was mortified to see copious redlining that highlighted many of my references missing information...

This was horrific, because of the time it must take to correct. I was preparing my thesis for submission in early February and could ill afford prioritising additional work.  My legacy Refworks database had around 1,600 references in it. If I used 1,200 of those in my thesis and 1,000 required correction with six minutes for finding the missing information, I would need to find 100 hours to fix this giant mistake.

On a related note, my main supervisor flagged another major citation evil. The particular Harvard referencing style I had used (since my BAFA Hons in '94, ahem) might be flagged as 'outdated' by external reviewers. They might prefer me to use one of the other nine Harvard styles. Prof. Marion Walton recommended that I shift to the American Psychological Association, which has just one style. It's widely used in Media Studies, so would also prove useful in developing articles from my PhD. In response, I learnt this new style and restyled my in-line citations.

Enter ProQuest Refworks, enter light (yellow)?
By default, the UCT off-campus login (see Figure 1) points to the old version of Refworks . The option to upgrade was listed in a tiny box on the top right of Legacy Refworks (see Figure 2). I clicked on this link to find out what had changed... 

Figure 1. Screenshot of UCT off campus login at shows Refworks' high salience.

 Figure 2. Screenshot of the Legacy Refworks screen, which shows the low salience of its top left link to ProQuest Refworks.

Probably the most helpful change for my purposes was that the Legacy Refworks did not flag incomplete citations. By contrast, ProQuest Refworks did this in yellow for essential and blue for optional information. This proved helpful for Lungile Madela and I as we worked through correcting my Refworks database in one week.

Exported references with Missing Parts
We had taken considerable care to ensure each reference was as complete as it could be, but some references became incomplete on export. For example, the PhD and Masters dissertations (in which we tried variations for 'Faculty' and 'Degree' under the 'thesis' type) would not display all their information under the citation view, nor in the exported bibliography. At the time, the only UCT specialist who could advise on a workaround was on leave. I did learn from ProQuest Refworks support that the university and type of degree are not mapped from the old database into the new one. So, I did a *. search for all thesis entries, then manually cut-and-pasted the correct version of each citation into my bibliography. This points again to the importance of understanding the constraints of the referencing software you use, versus what it does.

The Disconnected Bibliography of the Damned
Another important constraint existed in my use of an old version of Microsoft Word that did not support the use a ProQuest Refworks add-in. In particular, it automatically generates a bibliography from in-line citations. By contrast, read-through the bibliography to remove sources that had become irrelevant. I then passed my thesis through Reciteworks, a free APA and Harvard citations checker. It proved super-useful for matching in-line citations with the bibliography and also identifying stylistic errors to fix.

The Summoning of my Legacy Refworks database and its Zombie Citations
I eventually had to update to the latest version of Word for handling my large thesis file (Word 2010 crashed repeatedly while I combined all chapters into a thesis). After submitting it, I started to use the Refworks Citation Manager for manuscripts from my thesis and the 'online academic bullies and mobs' project. This add-in worked well for me until a 'new projects' functionality upgrade was launched. Projects are a better way for organising references at a high-level; rather than showing all of them at once, one can associate a Word document with a particular project's references. I split my projects into two; one for cyberbullies, the other for my 'Inequality in Digital Personas' PhD.

Figure 3. The ProQuest Refworks add-in for Microsoft Word shows old folders from my Legacy Refworks database. 

At last on the leading edge of referencing technology, an unexpected downside was that my'PhD' project combined with my UCT proxy access to summon the Legacy Refworks database's return. The project's old database did not reflect the new folders, citations and corrected references in my ProQuest Refworks database. Thankfully, Rich and Jay from its support portal were very helpful in organising my Legacy Refworks database's deletion.

I sincerely hope that there will be no further episodes of 'My Cursed Referencing', but commit to writing a sequel post if they do... Here's to helping others avoid or overcome similar predicaments.

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