Have you ever stumbled across a tool you never knew existed, then wondered how you ever lived without it? Happened to me the other day. The tool in question? CSL Editor, a search tool and editor for bibliographic styles.
In theory, producing a bibliography should be simple. Researchers have multiple reference manager options these days – we profiled them in 2015 – many of which can create a bibliography. Simply insert reference placeholders in the text, select the desired journal format (Nature, Science, Cell, …), and go. The software will automatically format and insert the reference list and in-text citations for you.
But what if your journal uses some obscure, non-standard format? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to search citation styles by what they look like in print? As it turns out, you can.
Launched in April 2012, the CSL Editor provides a simple user interface for finding and modifying Citation Style Language (CSL) files. CSL is an open-source file format that describes bibliographic styles. Based on XML, a text file format similar to HTML, CSL powers several of today’s popular reference managers, including Mendeley, ReadCube and Zotero. And because it is open, anyone can create or contribute new formats. At present, there are over 8,500 styles available, from ‘3 Biotech’ to ‘Zwitscher-Maschine’.
The CSL Editor tool allows users to search those collections by journal name, of course. But also by what the style looks like. Just provide an example of a properly formatted in-text citation and bibliographic entry, and the tool will return the closest match(es). You can then download and use those files directly, or edit them using the tool’s visual editor function. (A code editor is also available, for those comfortable working with XML files directly.)
“Editing these styles used to require more technical skills since you needed to edit the XML files directly,” explains Steve Ridout, who was lead developer on the project back in 2012, in an email. “The editing tools have made this process more user friendly making it accessible to more people.”
The CSL editor receives some 4,500 unique visitors per month, Ridout says. If you ever find yourself in need of the perfect reference format, you may just be one of them.
Jeffrey Perkel is Technology Editor, Nature.