In this question, people mention that biblatex requires biber to work. However, if biblatex has the option backend=biber, doesn't that mean that using biber is optional rather than mandatory?

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    There are several biblatex features that cannot be done with bibtex as the backend. – daleif Nov 19 '17 at 6:13
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    Ok, but then why is biber a biblatex option if it is actually mandatory? – user118967 Nov 19 '17 at 6:22
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    I'm not saying it us mandatory, just that for many features it is required. Nowadays you only use the bibtex back end as a last measure. Someone wrote in another thread that bibtex can only do about 20% of what biber can. Not surprisingly, as biber is still being developed. But one should also remember that, if you are doing research, journals might not be able to handle biblatex content (due to how they operate internally), so pure bibtex (no biblatex) still has its uses. – daleif Nov 19 '17 at 6:27
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    You can do backend=bibtex, but you lose out on a lot of functionality. Some bibliography styles also require Biber nowadays. – jon Nov 19 '17 at 6:42
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    In the specific situation of the question the user did not specify a backend option, so the default backend=biber is used. That setting requires Biber to be run and not BibTeX. Of course another solution would have been to tell the OP to use backend=bibtex and continue compiling with BibTeX. But BibTeX does not support all of biblatex's features and is considered a legacy backend. The biblatex documentation generally assumes Biber is used. – moewe Nov 19 '17 at 7:35

Up until several (five or six?!) years ago, there was an age when the biblatex package was not yet as mature as it is now and the biber program was, ahem, less than perfectly stable and reliable. Understandably, the default back-end program (to perform sorting) was BibTeX. If one felt a bit adventurous and wanted to use biber, one could (and had to) specify backend=biber to override the default.

At some point, however, biber became the default back-end for biblatex, mainly because (a) it's much more powerful and versatile than BibTeX -- which is, after all, what biber was supposed to be all along -- and (b) biber eventually became sufficiently stable to be usable outside of, to put it delicately, experimental settings. Ever since this switch was made, it has technically speaking no longer been necessary to specify backend=biber if the intent is to use biber as the back-end. Conversely, if one nowadays really means to use BibTeX, one must specify backend=bibtex explicitly. A separate matter: there are by now some biblatex bibliography styles that require biber, i.e., they won't operate properly if BiBTeX is used.

As you probably know, though, old habits -- whether good or bad! -- are slow to die. Thus, many old hands, and quite few younger ones too, still write backend=biber even though it's no longer strictly necessary to do so if the plan is to use the program biber.

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  • +1) You might want to mention that a while ago, biblatex was rewritten to make BibTeX a legacy backend (i.e. one that should not be used for new documents any more and is kept around mainly for backwards compatibility). The documentation now does not mention explicitly which features are Biber only any more, as it assumes that people use Biber. – moewe Nov 19 '17 at 7:32
  • @moewe - Thanks. I seem to remember that there was a real discussion at some point (roughly 5 to 6 years ago?) whether biblatex would even be made to work at all with BibTeX going forward, i.e., whether the option backend=bibtex would work at all. Thankfully (in my view; clearly, I don't claim to be speaking for anyone else...), though, the decision was made to preserve some backward compatibility -- in part, I suppose, to continue to be able to work with legacy documents. However, as you point out, for new bibliographies, the assumption should be that biber will be used. – Mico Nov 19 '17 at 7:50
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    +1 could change the bit about 'five or six years ago' to be an absolute reference? – cmhughes Nov 19 '17 at 7:58
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    @cmhughes - I'm afraid I haven't held on to the documentary evidence on this issue... (I.e., I'm pretty sure that it's more than 5 years ago, but less than about 7!) Feel free to undertake a thorough archeological dig. :-) – Mico Nov 19 '17 at 8:00
  • It doesn't worry me that much, but reading this in years hence will lead to different interpretations (e.g. Imagine reading it in 2022) – cmhughes Nov 19 '17 at 9:23

As mentioned by Mico, biber is the default choice for backend but one can also give bibtex. As already detailed, that choice was made as Biber offers more features than BibTeX. It is worth noting, however, that biblatex continues to allow the use of BibTeX as a back-end (there are no plans to remove the support). One factor in this is that biblatex was originally written to use BibTeX and that for quite a large number of 'simple' use cases (large parts of natural sciences, for example) the outcomes are equivalent to those for Biber.

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