Last year I was involved in writing a large group proposal with LaTeX. This involved various sections written and rewritten by disparate subgroups, with all the merging and editing headaches you'd expect and more. In particular, handling the bibliography was a nightmare. Everyone handled references by hand without using BibTeX or anything similar (some people didn't even use \cite), and it took hours of work at the end to get a properly alphabetized bibliography without duplications; we ran out of time and energy for any attempt at consistency of formating, or even checking which preprints were now publications in print.

It is likely that I will be involved in a similar proposal at some point in the future, and I'm looking for suggestions to make (at least) the bibliography work more smoothly.

Keep in mind that what I'm dealing with is at least as much a sociological problem as a technological one. I think almost none of the people I'm working with have even heard of BibTeX, and some may be resistant to making the time investment to learn any unfamiliar software at all. So very low overhead is a must.

I had been planning to insist on using BibTeX, but I just recently learned about AMSRefs, which (used in the simplest way) seems to require less overhead for novices. (Since we are mathematicians, it's easy to get both BibTeX and AMSRefs data for our citations from MathSciNet or MRefs.) And of course there may be other alternatives, or things that work with BibTeX, that I don't know about.

I'm well aware that BibTeX or something similar would at best only help with a very few aspects of the problems I described with my past experience, and that the Right Solution would be to use some kind of VCS for the entire thing. Unfortunately, I think it's probably out of the question to get everyone else to learn to use such a system (though I'm open to being convinced otherwise).

  • Another point that Ben's answer brought to my mind is that there are indeed collaborators using each of Mac/Linux/Windows, and maybe other operating systems for all I know. – Mark Meckes Aug 12 '10 at 16:01
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    Yikes! In particle physics the solution we use is to insist not only on bibtex, but on using a standard database for the entries (usually Spires). – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 12 '10 at 22:35
  • I'll accept an answer when I decide which way I want to go. At the moment, after only cursorily looking at the first few suggestions, I'm leaning toward refbase. As I understand it, although refbase might require more setup work on my part than, say, Mendeley, it would not require my collaborators to install any software they don't already have, which is a huge plus. – Mark Meckes Aug 13 '10 at 14:04

I'd recommend using a central reference database that everyone can add references to and which generates unique citation keys. In particular, I'd recommend refbase. I have a slightly modified version of it (see below) in which I've changed the field names to something a little more useful for mathematicians (it was designed by geologists) and in which I've added automatic importers for the arXiv and MathSciNet: so simply specifying an arXiv id or an MR number is enough for it to go and fetch the data needed.

This approach would also mean that you could put off the BibTeX/AMSRefs choice for a while (assuming that both use \cite{ref} in the text).

My modified version of refbase is available on github. (NB the comments below refer to an earlier repository, not the github one.)

  • Your link for the bzr repository appears to be broken. – Mark Meckes Aug 13 '10 at 13:17
  • @Mark Meckes: did you click on it in your browser? My apologies if you did! I shouldn't have made it 'clickable' (actually, I just took out the 'make this a link' syntax and it is still clickable). Anyway, I've put slightly more detailed instructions. – Andrew Stacey Aug 13 '10 at 13:57
  • Thanks, that clears that up. I very seldomly install anything, and forgot how bzr repositories work. – Mark Meckes Aug 13 '10 at 14:02

You might want to consider to use Mendeley http://www.mendeley.com/, which is in essence a bibliography manager that is -- in my opinion easy to use. You can also share (partial) libraries, and collections can be exported (and imported) to BibTeX.

The program Mendeley is free, and quite good in organizing even your existing library of PDF articles. It should be intuitive enough for your collaborators to use, and is available for most platforms (MAC / Linux / Windows)

  • +1 It's certainly not the only option, but I've tried a few reference management systems and Mendeley is my favorite so far. – David Z Aug 12 '10 at 20:10
  • Yes it's a good free alternative. The latest version is much more robust than the earlier ones. – yCalleecharan Oct 26 '10 at 17:01

See the third answer to the question

how to avoid bibtex error message "repeated entry" for an entry appearing in several bibtex files?

it explains how nbibtex can help you without deploying any new app or database server ;-)

  • I don't alreadly have nbibtex installed on my system, so I assume my coauthors mostly don't either. I'm sure they do already have BibTeX installed, even if they don't know it. – Mark Meckes Aug 13 '10 at 14:29

Votes for I, librarian! I really love that program. The latest version got a new design and it is even usable with mobile (Tablets, phone) devices. It really is worth a try!

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