Thursday, 14 July 2016

How much time is lost formatting references?

I just completed a grant application and one of the steps required me to list my recent papers in a specific format. This was an electronic submission and I’m sure it could be made much simpler, possibly by working off the DOI or PubMed ID? But this got me thinking about the pain of reformatting references and the reasons we have so many formats in the first place. It took me ten minutes to get references in the required format, and I've spent much longer in the past - all wasted time in a day that is already too full!


I use Mendeley as my reference manager of choice and it has a very good Word plug-in that makes it easy to add references and build a final reference list when writing papers. I used it for my PhD with over 160 references and it coped pretty well. Mendeley, EndNote, et al make changing reference styles pretty easy, but why do we have to bother at all?

In digging into this I came across a post by  Jay Fitzsimmons at the Canadian Field-Naturalist blog. Jay's post is well written and describes the problem well - lots of citation styles, but no real evidence about which is most efficient.

How did reference styles evolve: Once upon a time the only way to access published information was to go to your University library and find the paper you were looking for (it wasn't that long ago). House styles were developed by publishers as a set of standards for the writing and design of articles in their periodicals. There was no, or little, effort to determine what the most efficient way to communicate the information in a reference. A big reason for abbreviating information, or omitting article titles etc from references was to reduce the amount of text - simply to save money for publishers of printed materials. There is even an ISO standard just for abbreviating journal titles! Even though we're in the electronic age there might still be good reasons to abbreviate references. Who wants to read a 300 author list (unless you're one of the authors of course)!

What do I think is important: It depends on why I’m looking at a reference in the first place but here are my priorities
  1. The title is the most common reason I decide if this is a paper I should read, I’d like to see it every time.
  2. Second on my list is the year of publication, there’s sometimes no point looking at old references in a fast moving field (but beware this simple cull on useful reading materials).
  3. Then I’d like a link to the paper - personally I’m happy with the PubMed ID or DOI.
  4. Lastly is the lead author(s) as these are likely to be the people with most to gain from the publication in the immediate future.
As far as the authors go then in the context of my grant application, or perhaps a CV or job application I’d prefer a simple numbering format: the authors place by numerical ordering of the author list and the total number of authors, perhaps with an asterisk to denote joint first or corresponding author status e.g. 2*/17 where I am the 2nd author in a list of 17 authors, but I'm a joint 1st author.

Lastly I’d set it all to a nice delimited format so a screen grab from almost anything can be easily imported into whatever I need to use the reference in.

I don't really care about the Journal and certainly not volume and/or page numbers as I am NOT going to look for this in the library!

So here’s my suggestion:
Murtaza/Dawson/Tsui. Non-invasive analysis of acquired resistance to cancer therapy by sequencing of plasma DNA. Nature. 2013. DOI:10.1038/nature12065. PMID:23563269. 13/17.

Compare this to:
Murtaza M, Dawson SJ, Tsui DW, Gale D, Forshew T, Piskorz AM, Parkinson C, Chin SF, Kingsbury Z, Wong AS, Marass F, Humphray S, Hadfield J, Bentley D, Chin TM, Brenton JD, Caldas C, Rosenfeld N. Non-invasive analysis of acquired resistance to cancer therapy by sequencing of plasma DNA. Nature. 2013 May 2;497(7447):108-12.

I guess nothing is going to change in the field anytime soon. But I feel better for getting this off my chest. And I’ve sent feedback to the funder...

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