Is there a library that can help turn user inputs for various fields into a proper bibtex entry that can be put into .bib file?

  • Emacs includes bibtex-mode which helps creating such entries. – N.N. Oct 21 '12 at 9:16
  • I tried reading about bibtex-mode at emacswiki.org/emacs/BibTeX, but honestly I'm still quite confused about how to use it. Anyone mind giving a quick summary? – Paul S. Oct 21 '12 at 17:41
  • Try C-h m when in bibtex-mode to get some info. – N.N. Oct 21 '12 at 17:42
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This question is not without ambiguity.

Generating a "proper bibtex" entry means a number of things: (1) choosing the right entrytype, (2) including necessary/customary fields for that entry type, (3) and formatting those fields correctly (for instance, dealing with complex names with accents, 'von' or 'de' parts, 'Jr.' and the like -- or even with initials).

Text editors

A number of tools will give you "Skeleton" records which you can fill in, and which will help considerably with (2). For instance, to use an example noted in the comments, Emacs has a bibtex mode which will enable you to "summon" a skeleton entry. Thus, e.g. c-x c-e c-a gives you the outline of an entry for an article

  author =   {},
  title =    {},
  journal =  {},
  year =     {},
  OPTkey =       {},
  OPTvolume =    {},
  OPTnumber =    {},
  OPTpages =     {},
  OPTmonth =     {},
  OPTnote =      {},
  OPTannote =    {}

You can see which fields you need (author, title, journal, year), and which are "optional" (key, volume, number, pages, month, note, annote), and fill in accordingly, removing "OPT" from the fields you use. It produces something similar with "ALT..." where fields are alternative. This gives you a reasonable reminder of the sort of data you should probably be entering, keeps your format fairly neat, and avoids "classic" errors like missing commas. But it's pretty bare bones.

Bibliography management tools

Other bibliography management tools such as Jabref or Bibdesk offer similar functionality, though specifically designed for managing references and packaged in a dedicated GUI for that purpose. They will give you a neatly formatted "record card" which explains what data is required, and what is optional or permitted, so that you can fill it in, and they will then deal with some or much of the housekeeping, so that you don't have to worry about braces, commas and so forth.

As far as I know, these tools tend not to be so helpful in relation to problems (1) and (3): they will give you useful skeletons to fill in, but there will sometimes be times when you encounter a source and you are not sure how best to "fit it" inside existing categories, and (more commonly perhaps) they won't stop you making "classic mistakes" with the formatting of individual fields, for instance in not wrapping institutional author-names in braces, or entering initials in such a way that they appear to be very short names.

Research management systems

A further and rather different category of tools consists of things like Mendeley which aim to do quite a bit more, in that they aspire to provide comprehensive tools to manage reference material, and to connect to a variety of web-based facilities to do this: they can then export bibtex files using material you have given them or found online. In principle this should, where it works, make your life much easier, because these tools hope to avoid you having to enter the data "by hand" and ought in theory to be able to take care of things like name formats; my own (limited) experience of them is that what they produce is not always right, and they still need coaxing (or more) to produce totally correct files. And you are buying in to a generally rather "heavy" interface to manage your research, which either suits you or doesn't. But they have many enthusiasts.


So, as usual, it's rather a matter of taste (and perhaps of the field you work in). There are plenty of tools which will help you to manage reference collections, at various different levels "above" the underlying .bib file. In my rather limited experience, none of them removes the need to understand some basic principles about how to format names and deal with accents or LaTeX commands; and they all work most smoothly when dealing with commonly-encountered types of source -- and for that purpose all of them work pretty well, and it's really a question of what you prefer. Whatever you use, it's wise to acquire a working knowledge of bibtex formats, if only to make sure that what your software is producing is correct, and to identify fields that are likely to be problematic.

  • Great answer. Depending on the OS the OP uses, there might also be Desktop Software available doing the same as Mendeley, for example Papers2. To ensure quite reliable BibTeX entries, one good remark is, that in Google Scholar, it is possible to active the BibTeX-Link for the research articles presented upon a search. – Ronny Oct 22 '12 at 19:58

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