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Given the rich set of features that Biblatex offers over BibTeX et al., one has to wonder why the latter is being used at all. Legacy code aside (which seems to be easy enough to adapt, anyway) the only real disadvantage seems to be the lack of support from publishers.

The question is: external pressure aside¹, is there any use case where you would not choose to use Biblatex for a new document, and why? What are objective reasons to teach BibTeX to LaTeX novices?

Background

In the context of my earlier question on designing BibTeX code export for Stack Exchange, the question arose which systems that export should support. Obviously, if your bib file uses entry types, field or formats from Biblatex, users that use e.g. natbib+bibtex may have a bad experience. I'm trying to make up my mind about whether we should care.

If there is no good² reason to use BibTeX, maybe there is no reason to support it in third-party software; but that is a separate discussion. The more interesting outcome is that there are good reasons, in which cases such software should definitely support BibTeX, and find another way to enable users to use the full potential of Biblatex.

Ultimately, this post is about collecting reasons, not for weighing them or drawing a conclusion.


  1. External pressure such as "I have to compile this document which I can not change" or "this publisher won't accept anything but a bibtex .bbl, period" are immutable and thus not open for discussion. I'm interested if there are other reasons.
  2. I don't consider external pressure a good reason, from an author's perspective.
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    Can we have 'BibTeX is extremely stable' (same argument for using TeX90/plain over anything else)? – Joseph Wright Sep 17 '15 at 15:35
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    Another one to consider: is speed important? Biber is a lot slower than BibTeX (see also other BibTeX replacements, which are faster than Biber though I suspect not as flexible when one really looks at it). – Joseph Wright Sep 17 '15 at 15:45
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    @Raphael Because it's not outdated, not obsolete and not deprecated. – egreg Sep 17 '15 at 16:31
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    @cfr That is precisely my point in the second half of my comment above. The abundance of BibTeX styles (with whatever nice features) is definitely a reason for people to stick to BibTeX. – moewe Sep 18 '15 at 12:58
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    Also, a .bbl produced by BibTeX can be easily used in submissions to publishers which support neither BibTeX nor Biblatex. The same is not true of one produced by Biber, for example. – cfr Sep 18 '15 at 19:25
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Hidden in the mass of comments, a couple of reasons for sticking to BibTeX have been brought forth. I'll list them without comment; everybody will have to make up their own mind about their priorities.

  • bibtex is faster than biber (1, 2).
  • There are, as of today, many more styles for BibTeX, including not-yet ported journal styles (reference needed, in particular for styles in frequent use).
  • BibTeX is stable. (claim; unclear if about bugs or changes)

For the sake of completeness, I'll also include external factors which can not be done away with by localized efforts:

  • Legacy documents may only compile using BibTeX, and changing them may be impossible (e.g. source under no-change license) or not desirable (e.g. different output).
  • As of today, many (academic) publishers insist on the use of BibTeX.

For reference, see a description of the advantages of Biblatex here.

  • BibTeX is much easier for those publishers who expect authors to use thebibliography and support neither BibTeX nor Biblatex. – cfr May 26 '16 at 18:27
  • @cfr Sorry, I have little patience for incompetence. They are professionals (?), they should be able to adapt. – Raphael May 26 '16 at 18:36
  • I meant: it is much easier for an author where a publisher insists on thebibliography. Authors may be professionals but they are not (generally) professional typesetters. And I would be grateful, personally, to any publisher which accepted TeX and didn't insist on Word. But if they require Word, I send them Word. If they required thebibliography, I'd have to do that. But adapting to those requirements is not something in which I have professional expertise even though I might have to do it as part of my professional activities. – cfr May 26 '16 at 21:37
  • @cfr I meant the publishers and, by extension, their employees. (Seems I misunderstood your first comment.) Biber and biblatex have been around for a non-trivial amount of years; why do they insist on not supporting it? Supporting, not necessarily demanding. – Raphael May 26 '16 at 22:53
  • I don't think I was very clear originally. That's why I clarified. The 'why don't publishers...?' has been answered elsewhere and is not something I know anything about, personally. – cfr May 27 '16 at 1:25
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Legacy code aside, one should not exclude personal preference, or that we as humans might be inherently lazy... Some examples to explain:

  • A concurrent example: Some people still prefer Plain TeX over using LaTeX (just look at the question marked ). For them it's the syntax that they've grown used to and may find difficult to change.

  • "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" might also be the mentality of people who still use older syntax.

  • You'll have to adapt to a newer (or different) syntax, and not everyone is keen on learning something new.

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    Or they have to choose which new thing to learn given limited time and resources! – cfr Sep 18 '15 at 19:24
  • ad 2: doesn't bibtex break for many things (thinking of non-ASCII symbols and sorting)? Of course, any given individual may not face any such problems. ad 3: my personal experience was that the switch was as easy as changing three lines (style aside, which I did not care about too much). I guess there's more effort if you use more involved features (via other packages on the BibTeX side?) which you then have to port, e.g. section bibliographies. – Raphael Sep 18 '15 at 21:03

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