Bibliography Blues

The JWST discussion is getting vairy interesting. But meanwhile life continues. There are students to meet and papers to write. I am trying to finish writing up something I have been fiddling with for yonks. Let me burden you with three niggles about writin’ papers these days. The first of these I already tried out on the Twittersphere, but got a three-way split, so I am trying again….

We are not amused

I am writing a single author paper. Do I go for “I” or “we” or the passive voice ? Nothing seems right…

“In this paper, I consider the effect of X on Y…” Sounds a bit arrogant.

“In this paper, we consider…” So, Andy, is that the royal we ? Or are you having a personality crisis ?

“The effect of X on Y is considered…” By who ? Sounds a tad dry and formal.

Gaagh. What do I do ? I am bound to be wrong.

MNRAS long author list bug

Like many of you, I use BibTeX, and when writing a MNRAS paper, use the standard Blackwell supplied  LateX stuff including mn2e.bst file and a \bibliographystyle{mn2e} command. Mostly this works fine, but if you have a paper with a very long author list, it throws up an error when you run BibTeX:

Warning-you’ve exceeded 250, the entry-string-size, for entry Crenshaw1996 while executing-line 1223 of file mn2e.bst . Please notify the bibstyle designer.

and then LaTeX compilation bombs. Previously I have just excluded that paper and then added another \bibitem by hand. The Blackwell folk know this is a problem, because the README says

Note that there is a known bug in the .bst file: for very long author lists BibTeX reports an error. We are aware of the problem and hope to correct this in a future release

Unfortunately the README has said the same thing since Feb 2001. However, as often in geekdom, the community rides to its own rescue. I found a fix  written by Michael Williams at MPE. His file has the same name as the official Blackwell version, but I renamed it when downloading so I would know when I am using the fixed version. Thank you Michael !

Ex Libris Xerxes

What do people use these days for collecting and sorting their private libraries of research papers ? I have been oscillating around various options and not quite stabilising. At two ends, the constraints are clear. One wants a .bib database for squirting things into our LaTeX documents; and one wants to grab things from ADS and arXiv . In ADS itself you can construct private libraries and export them, and I use this a fair bit, but it doesn’t give me the sort of hands-on metadata editing I sometimes want, or the sorting, grouping, tagging and general manipulative ability that you want. For that sort of thing, there are quite a few commercial packages, like EndNote, Papers, Bookends, etc, but I have always used the free Java app Jabref. This is v.good, but it doesn’t give me the ability to grab and add things from ADS.

Some publishers have tried to solve this problem via a web interface, and of course lock you into their world while they are at it. Springer tried CiteULike  (worst —  name — ever) and Nature publishing tried Connotea . Being server hosted, they can add a social networking side. Join a group, share your favourite papers with your chums etc. Then I discovered Zotero. This is a kind of hybrid. Its a firefox extension that feels like a proper app but works with ADS, giving a one-click import. It has FOLDERS not just bloody tags so you can organise things just as you want them. But it also has that social groupy thingy. Its lovely. But I wanted to use Chrome… or at least not be locked into Firefox. So I decided to give it up.

So then I discovered that the trendy young things these days use Mendeley. It is a commercial enterprise, but with an open feel. The basic version is free, but you pay for premium service like more storage and extra features. There is a desktop client and a server side, so they try to get the best of both worlds that way, but that does mean you have to keep synchronising. The most annoying thing has bee the lack of sub-folders (I like a hierarchy myself) but I heard a rumour the new version fixes this.

So anyway I will keep at it for a while. But right now my chain of action is (i) Browse ADS. (ii) Grab into Mendeley. (iii) Export folders to bibtex. (iv) Fiddle with bibtex with Jabref (v) Run LaTeX.

There is probably a discussion on Astrobetter  somewhere, but of course I can’t be arsed to go and look for it. Stufff to do.

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22 Responses to Bibliography Blues

  1. telescoper says:

    I hate the passive voice, but my poll on the matter gave inconclusive results

    In the example you give, how about “This paper discusses….”?

    I think it can be good style to use “we” if you’re the sole author, but only if you’re taking the reader through something: e.g. If we differentiate the LHS of equation (7) …etc. Then it’s not you and some hypothetical other author(s), but you and the reader.

  2. Tony says:

    You did the work, you wrote the paper. I see nothing wrong with using ‘I’.

  3. ian smail says:

    I’d go with “we”… passive voice is too artificial and “I” always seems too arrogant.

    not sure about the “personal library” point. i’ve got half a filing cabinet full of old photocopies from before ADS – when you had to go to the trouble of going to the library to get a copy of a paper and bring it back to read. but now i just leave it all on ADS and then its simply a case of remembering a co-author or the significant terms in the abstract.

    …although having a google-like mechanism in ADS to suggest the correct spelling of author names would be incredibly useful (i only ever find padelis papadopoulos’s papers by starting with ivison and then clicking through on the relevant co-author).

  4. Martin says:

    I’ve always written single-author papers with ‘I’, and don’t see why it should be considered arrogant; surely ‘we’ is more arrogant, if anything? I wrote my thesis as ‘I’ too, and encourage all my students to do the same…

  5. Go with “I”. We, whether royal or not, sounds corny and passive is too stilted. At most, “we” when taking the reader through something, as Peter suggested. “This paper discusses…” will work in some contexts but not in most.

    Surely, if you read a paper enough to cite it, writing a BibTeX entry by hand is negligible in comparison. I manually update a BibTeX file when I need to add a new paper. Of course, some people cite papers they haven’t read. :-)

  6. Ha, I didn’t know my bst file also fixes that bug. I can’t take credit for that though — I suspect it’s an improvement introduced in the astronat/ADS bst file I based my changes on. Glad you found it useful though!

  7. kav says:

    If you are uncomfortable using ‘I’, then use ‘we’ and if it helps I’m willing to sacrifice and offer myself to be a co-author to remove the potential accusations of arrogance.

  8. Steve says:

    If you are writing the paper by yourself, use ‘I’. How can this be too arrogant? Get over your discomfort – use your grant to pay for counselling

  9. Debbie says:

    Thanks for checking out zotero! Zotero will be available for Chrome in the near future and is currently available in test phase. You can read more about it at

    Zotero community lead

  10. John Peacock says:

    Talking of MNRAS mn2e bibliography bugs, why oh why won’t they fix the indentation bug in the reference list macro? I wish I had a pound for every time I’ve had to explain to a collaborator how to deal with this. But since no-one is likely to pay, here is the solution for free, in the hope that arxiv might henceforth become slightly less full of papers that are aesthetically spoiled by a messed-up bibliography:


  11. John Peacock says:

    And as for style in single-author papers, certainly not “I”. Looking up my last single-author production, I see that I adopted a mixture of passive and “we”. Something along the lines of “The main aim of this paper is to extend Bloggs’s Law to third order; combining equations (1)-(734) yields the curve shown in Fig. 27b, from which we see that Bloggs’s original work was completely flawed.” I agree with Mr Telescoper that the use of “we” works fine as a shared conspiracy with the reader, but it thus should not be used as a bald description of what has been done (“if we linearize the Boltzmann equation, we get…” is fine, but “we linearized the Boltzmann equation and got…” is not).

    • andyxl says:

      I have gone with a mixture of passive phrasing and “I”, trying to keep a reasonable tone – not too stiff, not too arrogant. I hope. Cross fingers.

  12. Professor Frederick Bloggs says:

    We object to your assessment of our work.

  13. Martin E. says:

    well i read the new paper and found the use of “I” rather charming.

  14. MikeW says:

    was the paper any good?

  15. Hongmei Peng says:

    Nice post , canada goose Thank you for sharing articles, See this article gave me great feeling, it is worth to study, if you have time can also see my articles, thank you !

  16. Duncan Waldron says:

    Just came across this, and thought of your question: “Only kings, presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial ‘we’” – Mark Twain. So, if you can answer ‘yes’ to any of them, you’re right to go.

  17. If you had emailed the author of mn2e.bst he would have told you that he had a fix for the problem back in 2001 but has been unable to find anyone at MN or Blackwell that knows how to release an updated file (there are only so many times you can try). You can get it from github:

  18. andyxl says:

    Doh ! I didn’t know you were the author old bean. Try Quentin Stanley. He did the new web pages a few years back and is perfectly geeky.

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