Online citation and bibliography software: A journey from nemesis to hero

Online citation and bibliography software: A journey from nemesis to hero

December 16, 2021 By Dawn McIlvain Stahl Resources

It’s the rare academic work or corporate report that isn’t missing a name, date of publication, or page number in at least a handful of references. So as copyeditors edit bibliographies, we often fill in or ask authors to provide missing pieces of information. Formatting references in our pet styles becomes second nature to most of us, but completing them can be a primal urge for nearly all of us.

What about creating them out of the thin air of a few scattered author-date citations or scrawled notes from the writer? Although citation creation may never be in our primary or secondary natures, it can be a relatively painless task now that we have so many online databases and resources—including one that I had long dismissed.

TheLibrary of Congress Online Catalog, WorldCat, Google Books, JSTOR, and Google Scholar are immensely helpful for tracking down missing bibliographic information or even for creating a few entries the author forgot to include. When the number of missing references amounts to several pages’ worth, however, manually typing and styling (or copy-pasting and restyling) can eat up an editing schedule before you’ve realized it. Thankfully, online bibliography software—the type that generates automatically formatted citations—has left the world of editor nemesis and stepped into the world of heroic applications.


I first encountered auto-generated bibliographies five or more years ago, when an author resentfully informed me that my many edits to a reference list couldn’t be correct because the bibliography had been created using BibMe. I was less than impressed and completely unconvinced of the infallibility or even the merits of an automatic citation creator that seemed to leave so many holes and issues. To be fair, BibMe was still in its infancy. To be real, after several back-and-forths with the author, I fervently hoped that I would never again be the Me that BibMe referenced.

Several years later—just a few weeks ago—an extensive bibliography I was working on was missing several sections. Several very long sections. The author was abroad and would be unavailable for weeks. Re-creating those references suddenly became a significant part of my job, and even though the budget and the schedule were increased to accommodate it, I needed to be as expeditious as possible. I reluctantly turned to citation-creation software and was surprised to find that it was not the bane I had encountered previously.



Based on Google hits and reviews, I picked three online citation creators to test: BibMe, Citation Machine, and EasyBib. These are not comprehensive research systems like the $249 EndNote [now $299.95—Ed.]; they are free citation generators that simply create a bibliography entry in the desired style—no embedded citations, linked notes and bibliographies, or stored library of references.

Although the order of the steps differs, each site works about the same: You pick your citation format and search for the reference by typing your information into a search bar. You select your reference from the resulting list of possibilities, and the site generates a citation in the style you requested. For some references, I had only the last name of the author, the publication date, and the gist of what the work was about (based on the in-text citation). It took just a few quick trials to realize that my old enemy, BibMe, was the best fit for what my project had become.

Originally, a production editor and I were going to work together, creating the bibliography in Google Docs. At that stage, I was sold on EasyBib’s free Google Docs add-on. When it became a solo project, I moved back to Word and was no longer sold on EasyBib. Unlike the free Google Docs add-on, the free EasyBib website generates citations only in the Modern Language Association (MLA) format. Other reference styles, including American Medical Association (AMA), American Psychological Association (APA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and Council of Science Editors (CSE), require a subscription to EasyBib Pro ($4.99 a month or $19.99 a year) [now $9.95—Ed.] a month. If I were working in a style I’m not as familiar with, I probably would have deemed it a well-spent $5. But I was working in Chicago style, and my fledgling enthusiasm for bibliography generators wasn’t strong enough to interest me in a subscription if I could find a good Chicago-style bibliography creator for free.

Citation Machine seemed to fit the bill. Developed by educator David Warlick, originally for teachers and now primarily for student researchers, Citation Machine aims to make citation as easy as possible to encourage properly crediting sources “because someday the information that someone else wants to use will be yours.” Citation Machine is free and offers APA, MLA, Chicago, and Turabian (Chicago style modified for student writers) citations for books, magazines, newspapers, websites, journals, films, and more. The interface and results are similar to BibMe, but with one deal-breaking difference for the editor who isn’t just patching in a few missing references: Citation Machine requires you to copy and paste each citation into your document before you search for and generate the next one.


Developed as a student project in Carnegie Mellon University’s information systems department, BibMe is powered by the WorldCat database. As with Citation Machine, you can choose APA, Chicago, MLA, or Turabian formats. You can search for books; magazine, newspaper, or journal articles; websites; or films. You can manually enter details for interviews, lectures, radio or TV programs, encyclopedia articles, or photographs.

Unlike EasyBib or Citation Machine, however, BibMe puts each “shiny new citation” that you generate into a panel on the right side of the screen. From that work-in-progress bibliography, you can edit individual citations, copy and paste them into a document, or save or download the entire bibliography as an RTF file, complete with proper alphabetization and hanging indent. If it’s “that kind of project,” you can even change the style of the entire bibliography (from Chicago to APA, for example) with one click.

To generate a bibliography with BibMe:

  1. Choose the resource you’re looking for (book, magazine, etc.). Books and journal articles are relatively easy to find. Magazine and newspaper articles from previous decades are hit or miss.
  2. Type the available bibliographic information into the search bar. Either the title alone or the author’s last name and the publication date together seem to work best. My instinct, developed in the days when research was done via card catalog at the library, was to use the author’s last name and the title of the work. Oddly, that seemed to give the least accurate results. Click Find [Book/ Article/etc.].
  3. Choose the correct resource from the list and click Select. This will take you to a manual-entry window in which the fields of the bibliographic record have been auto-filled.
  4. Check the bibliographic record, making corrections as necessary. If you’re compiling an annotated bibliography, this is also your chance to add an annotation. Click Add to My Bibliography.
  5. Once all items appear in the bibliography panel, save the complete bibliography by clicking Save to Account or download it as an RTF file by clicking Download to Word.


I found the manual-entry mode to be a big benefit, and even though it takes an additional click per entry, I like that BibMe doesn’t go straight to the created bibliography item after you hit Select. If a reference isn’t found (and there will be some), you can manually enter the information by filling in the relevant fields, ensuring that the reference is still included and properly formatted in the final list. By sending you through the manual-entry window with each citation, BibMe gives you a chance to catch easily corrected mistakes (middle initials in the last name field, errant punctuation marks, etc.) before it makes the entries into the final bibliography. In the hands of an attentive author or editor, BibMe can produce a fairly complete and accurate bibliography.

BibMe may not be the citation tool for every project, however. Citation Machine and EasyBib and its add-ons are decent options for short or collaborative projects, and Firefox users may prefer Zotero, a plug-in for that browser. In our increasingly mobile workflows, those looking for easy, on-the-go citation creation may even prefer QuickCite [now defunct—Ed.], a mobile app that takes a barcode scan and emails you a citation. But if you ever find yourself with a pile of author-date citations that you need to re-create a bibliography for, BibMe can be a time and sanity saver.

This article was originally posted to on 11/8/18.

Header photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash.

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