Systematically checking your reference list

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Shell doublecheck by Tomi Tapio K, Attribution-ShareAlike Licence

One of the things you need to do when your work is ready for submission is check the formatting and completeness of each reference. There are a host of details in formatting reference lists and each type of reference has different requirements. While software like Endnote goes a long way to help you make sure you have this right, you still need to check things as Endnote can only work with the information you have given it and this may be incorrect or incomplete.

But if your reference list is long, as it will be in a thesis, it can be difficult to be systematic in checking. It uses much less mental energy to check one thing at a time (for example, has every journal article got a doi?) than all aspects of the reference format one at a time. Checking each reference one at a time means you have to keep in mind all the rules for the type of reference and then switch between journal article rules, book chapter rules, thesis rules, and so on as you work down the list. At a time when your mental energy is likely to be ebbing, after the long slog of writing you have just accomplished, using your tools to help you be systematic is invaluable. I am going to describe doing this in Endnote, however the principles will apply in other reference management software.

The idea is to use the list display in Endnote to help you sort and check references quickly and easily. If you get them right in Endnote, they will be right in your document.

First of all you need to form a group of the references in your document. Endnote makes this easy as you can copy and paste the references from the document group it automatically forms for you (see here for more about this). I sort the references in my thesis group by type and copy and paste into new group folders to make several sub groups based on reference type: the journal articles, the book chapters, the theses, other references. Then I change the column display as needed to see the parts of references I want to check. (See here for information on how to change what columns are displayed in the list view in Endnote). I can then sort the columns (by clicking on the column headers) to look for missing information or errors.

For example, to check that every journal article has a doi and that it is correctly formatted, I display two columns I don’t usually display in the reference list view: the doi and the notes field. I open the journal article group and sort by doi. The blank ones will be together at the top or the bottom of the list (depending on the sort direction). I can check each one to see whether a doi is available. (See here for how to use crossref to check for dois). If a doi is not available I write a note in the notes field so I know later that I have checked. Otherwise I am not sure if it’s a reference I forgot to check or it really has no doi. By sorting the dois I can also check that each is in the same format. Sometimes when you pull a reference down into Endnote it puts doi: at the front of the doi field. Since Endnote also puts doi: in the reference you can end up with the reference looking like doi: doi:10….. in your reference list. It’s easy to check for these and remove them in the sorted list. Sometimes also there is a mixture of dois formatted as urls and those formatted as just the doi. You can standardise this easily once you see which references are formatted which way.

I use the same type of technique to check for other things like

  • Do all book chapters have a chapter number and page number?
  • Are the editors specified for all edited books?
  • Are the book publishers names consistently presented?
  • Do I have the state and country for the place of publication?
  • Have all theses got the thesis type specified?
  • And so on. The list is endless–well not really, or you would never be finished!

The other thing I check for when I am ready to submit is whether early online publications now have a permanent volume and issue number (and whether the year is the same as the early online publication). I look at all the journal articles with no volume number, all those with pages starting at 1, and all those with a volume number of 1.

Being systematic like this can turn this sort of tedious task into something I actually enjoy doing because it makes me feel very productive without having to expend a lot of mental energy.

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