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In the biblatex manual, both "version" and "edition" are listed as valid data fields. What's the difference between these?

"Edition" is described as "the edition of a printed publication" and "version" is described as "the revision number of a piece of software, a manual, etc."

The dataset and manual entries are stated to support both fields, so in these cases, in particular, I'm not sure which I'd choose.

My best guess concerning the difference is that edition is more formal, suggesting material content changes, whereas a revision would be used for fixing an error, grammatical mistake, etc. But, I know these aren't great definitions as they don't apply to software (versions in software are not just for bug fixes).

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In principle edition and version are very similar in their underlying meaning. Both describe a new iteration of a work that is in all likeliness different from a previous iteration.

Broadly speaking I would agree with the biblatex documentation and say edition is a term that applies to book-like works that are printed or at least formally published via a relatively lengthy publishing process.

version is used for pretty much everything else including things that are traditionally not re-released.

I guess that explains your intuition that an edition is more substantial than a version:

  • Some things that have versions were traditionally not re-released at all, in which case very small changes might be made, but everything more substantial would have to be released by different means (think journal @articles).
  • Other things that have versions are/were re-released much more frequently than the kinds of things that have editions, so an edition naturally amasses more changes in a single go than a version.

It is interesting to see that apart from @dataset (which we'll get to in a second) only @manual supports both fields at the same time. My gut feeling is that this is exactly because @manuals can be printed as books, in which case people would be more inclined to use the edition field, or can be little booklets or PDF or HTML files that come directly with the product/software, where people would be more inclined to use version. In the BibTeX base styles (which were written when printed manuals were much more prevalent), @manual supports only the edition field. For @manual in particular, people might be inclined to put the version number of the software being documented into the version field. I expect that people would generally try to stick to the nomenclature used in the work itself. My guess is that nowadays manuals mostly would use version.

The @dataset driver was added to the biblatex core more recently (in v3.13, see https://github.com/plk/biblatex/issues/880). At the time the driver was added a point was made that some dataset providers use the term edition and some use the term version to describe different releases of their data (https://github.com/plk/biblatex/issues/880#issuecomment-481205207) and that people who want to stick as close as possible to the official wording would need both fields. In particular Alex Ball asked the UK Data Service about their use of edition and version and they explained the difference between the two as follows (https://github.com/plk/biblatex/issues/880#issuecomment-512270617)

The UK Data Service follows international archival/library standards, meaning that an 'edition' is different to a 'version'.

A version is generally a low-impact change, for example a small change to the catalogue record, variable or documentation metadata (fixing a typo, a slight variable labelling change, etc.). It results in a new release of said metadata, but does not involve a new edition statement or an increment in the DOI number.

A new edition is released after a significant change to data (such as a new or replaced data file or documentation, the addition of a new wave to a longitudinal study, etc.). At this point, a new edition statement is added to the citation and the DOI is incremented by one. See for example the edition history for the sixth Millennium Cohort Study at https://beta.ukdataservice.ac.uk/datacatalogue/doi?id=8156.

This lines up with your intuition, but again I expect that most people would probably try to stick with the nomenclature used in the work they are citing and would not try to assess themselves whether or not something counts as an edition or 'only' as a version.

In the end, the difference is probably not worth losing too much sleep over

  • most entry types only support one of the two fields,
  • even if an entry type supports both fields, the work you are citing probably uses one of the two terms "edition" or "version" explicitly to guide you in your choice.
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Let's begin with a light rephrased excerpt from your query:

The edition field is for "the edition of a printed publication", and the version field is for "the revision number of a piece of software, a manual, etc." The @dataset and @manual entry types recognize both field types. So in these cases, in particular, I'm not sure which I'd choose.

I don't see much scope for uncertainty or confusion. Let's start with the version field: Its purpose is to narrow down the information given in the title field. E.g., in a book (either printed or electronic) about, say, MacOS (until recently, MacOSX), the title might be MacOSX Tips and Tricks and the version field could be 10.4 Tiger, 10.5 Leopard, 10.6 Snow Leopard, 10.7 Lion, 10.8 Mountain Lion, ..., 10.12 Sierra, 10.13 High Sierra, etc. Observe that one could have stuck the information contained in the version field into the title field.

In contrast, the edition field should be used to distinguish between variants of a publication with the same author, title and if present, version, fields.

For example, let's assume that the author of a series of books about Apple's OS software has written a book entitled "MacOSX Tips and Tricks, 10.7 Lion", for which we've chosen the @manual entry type, title field "MacOSX Tips and Tricks", and version field "10.7 Lion". Let's also assume that the author and her publisher have chosen to launch a second edition, just a few months after the launch of the initial or first edition. (This could be either to correct typos and other mistakes contained in the initial edition or to adjust to the fact that Apple has introduced a few noteworthy mid-year enhancements to MacOSX 10.7 "Lion" since the initial launch of the OS.) In such cases, it's natural to employ the edition field (and set its value to either 2 of Second) if the purpose is to distinguish between the two versions (pun intended) of the manual. This will especially likely be the case if most of the contents of the book apply to both the initial and the enhanced version of the software.

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