A while back, one of my friends from college who now teaches writing where we went to school together sent me a message about a little debate in a writing instruction-related listserv about how university libraries always seem to market citation tools to students, making students become dependent on machines to do the work for them. This is an advertising tactic, but the workshop the library is putting on might actually show students how these tools aren’t 100 percent accurate. This was pretty much what he thought was likely but wanted to see what I thought. I do support these tools when used appropriately. The reality is that a lot of our students do find and use these tools on their own; I might as well give them some pointers.
In instruction sessions, I point out citation tool features in databases, but I always comment that the citations aren’t to be taken at face value. I usually do an example and ask students to point out what is incorrect in hopes that they remember that it isn’t always right. I do support using the tools in order to save time —students can copy-paste and correct by looking at their writer’s guides, which often have sections on citing in APA and MLA; the APA or MLA handbooks; Library handouts; Library LibGuides on APA and MLA; or even by googling Purdue OWL’s APA or MLA Formatting Guides. I even have Purdue OWL linked on my LibGuides for APA and MLA. I also have other citation tools listed in those online guides with a note indicating that these tools are not perfect.
I went on to tell my friend, “Ain’t no one just telling them to use the tools point blank.”
Well, I was wrong. Recently, someone in an academic library listserv was complaining that EBSCOhost needs to get its act together to fix the problems in their citation tool feature because the “nice librarian is telling students to use the feature, and students are getting points marked off.”
I’m just going to say it. You are not doing your job if you are simply telling students to use these tools. That was the gist of the feeling among the people who did a reply-all response. No tool is going to be perfect, but it’s not difficult to live in the happy place I’ve described above. There is so much help available to double-check citations, and if points off is what is going to motivate students to learn or at least take the time to check, so be it. The other challenge is that students, who do seem to understand why we cite, at least when I’ve asked students in class, don’t seem know why there are different styles or why they must be so precise when using a particular format. There needs to be a much deeper conversation, and I am sure this does happen in research instruction and writing instruction courses. It’s just part of getting students familiar with academic culture.
With that said, librarians, what are your favorite tools to help students cite or keep track of citations? While I only list links on my LibGuides to free tools (again, with a word of caution), here are some free and fee-based tools that I know about, though the only one I personally use is Zotero. Diigo does look really interesting, so it may be one I try out for myself. The last citation builder I played with is North Carolina State University Libraries’ Citation Builder.