(The following is an expansion of the biblatex tag entry, which I helped to write).
It's first off important to realize that the term BibTeX is often used to refer to various distinct things, and this can lead to some confusion. For example we typically tell new users to "use bibtex for your bibliography" which usually just means don't do it by hand, but instead store your references in a
.bib file and use some automatic method of formatting citations and bibliography. Additionally, we also talk about a "bibtex file" (i.e. a
.bib file). Both of these uses are in reality quite vague, and part of the reason for this question is to distinguish among them more carefully.
So in this question we will use the following terms:
biber are external programs that process bibliography information and act (roughly) as the interface between your
.bib file and your LaTeX document.
biblatex are LaTeX packages that format citations and bibliographies;
natbib works only with
biblatex (at the moment) works with both
For those users who already use
natbib, and are contemplating a switch, the following question will also be useful: What to do to switch to biblatex?.
natbib package has been around for quite a long time, and although still maintained, it is fair to say that it isn't being further developed. It is still widely used, and very reliable.
- It has a wide range of already developed
.bst files which conform to many journals and publishers in the sciences.
- The author of the
natbib package has written a package called
custom-bib, which provides a utility called
makebst. This utility is menu-driven and allows you to interactively generate custom bibliography style files. Bibliography style files generated with
makebst are very stable and (unsurprisingly, given the authorship) work very well with
natbib's citation commands.
- The resulting bibliography code can be pasted directly into a document (often required for journal submissions). See Biblatex: submitting to a journal.
- Because it depends on
bibtex, its interface requires
.bst files, which use a postfix language that is difficult to program in for most people. This means that making even minor modifications to an existing style to meet particular formatting requirements can be quite difficult.
- It is designed especially for Author-Year and (to a lesser extent) numeric citation styles that are common in the natural and social sciences. It is not able to do traditional humanities style citation styles such as Author/Title or footnote style citations and bibliographies (including various sorts of ibid tracking).
- Multiple bibliographies in a single document or categorized bibliographies require extra packages.
- By depending on
bibtex as a backend, it inherits all of its disadvantages (see below).
You might want to use
- there is a
.bst file already created for the specific journal you submitting a paper to;
- a journal accepts
latex submissions and requires or expects
natbib. Such journal may not accept
biblatex for the bibliography.
biblatex package is being actively developed in conjunction with the
Humanities style citations
biblatex is almost required if you need any of the following:
humanities style citations (author-title type schemes; citations using ibid etc.)
a much wider array of BibTeX database fields (again, especially suited for the humanities).
.bib files (usable with the
biber replacement for
fine control over your own bibliography styles using regular
Author-year and numeric citations
biblatex provides the same functionality as
natbib for author-year and numeric citations common in the natural and social sciences. It can therefore be used as a replacement for
All formatting of citations and bibliography entries is done using regular LaTeX macros. As a consequence, regular LaTeX users are able to make modifications to existing styles quite easily.
biblatex also has built in hooks for most kinds of modifications.
biblatex can use
bibtex as a backend, it does no formatting with
.bst files, but only uses
bibtex for sorting.
Multiple bibliographies and categorized bibliographies are supported directly.
Available biblatex styles
In addition to the standard styles that are documented in the
biblatex manual, CTAN currently lists the following extra style packages for
Many new journal styles are being created for
biblatex. Given the flexibility of adapting
biblatex styles, in many cases it may be quite easy to modify an existing style to accommodate a particular journal's style.
- Journals and publishers may not accept documents that use
biblatex if they have a house style with its own
- It is not trivial to include the bibliographies created by
biblatex into a document (as many publishers require.) See Biblatex: submitting to a journal.
bibtex vs. biber
Many of the disadvantages of
natbib are a consequence of its reliance on
bibtex for formatting. This is the main (huge) distinction between the
biblatex, as the latter, even when it uses
bibtex as the backend, doesn't use it for formatting, only for sorting. However,
biblatex is also designed to use
biber, a new backend that adds further functionality to
- very stable and widely used
- very hard to modify bibliography styles without learning a different language (if using
natbib; not an issue if using
- very poor cross-language support and non-European script support. Non-ASCII characters are best avoided. See How to write "ä" and other umlauts and accented letters in bibliography for guidance on how to write characters with accents and diacritics.
- able to deal with many more entry and field types in the
- able to deal with UTF-8 encoded
- better sorting control.
- Only works with
biblatex, not with
- Because it does much more than
bibtex it is a lot slower. See Why is biber so slow? for discussion.
As noted at the beginning of this answer, we tend to use the term
bibtex file to refer to the
.bib file itself, which leads to the assumption that tools that manipulate
.bib files are only available to
bibtex users and not
biber users. This is simply not the case: tools designed for manipulating
.bib files such as reference managers and various
.bib file generation/manipulation tools can be used.
It is the case, however, that as you transition to using all the features of
biblatex you may find certain differences in the
.bib files become more relevant.
A separate question Compatibility of bibtex and biblatex bibliography files? explores some of the differences between traditional
.bib files and
.bib files that have been adapted for use with