Wilder Hazard

grad student blog

Citeproc Nights

May 16, 2021 — Asher Wycoff

As I confessed in a post on the old blog, I used to write in Microsoft Word (the horror) and type up all my references myself. It's not that I hadn't tried reference management software, but I had hated it. Word's in-built reference manager is atrocious, of course, and while programs like Zotero are marked improvements, they nonetheless have the same GUI elements I dislike. It was somehow less onerous to type out citations in full multiple times than to type them out once across a dozen text fields and checkboxes (Author, Title, Journal, Volume, Issue...). And integrating Zotero into Word just made it one more toolbar widget I had to keep track of in an already bloated bit of legacy enterprise software.

When I began writing the dissertation in earnest, it was very clear that I couldn't maintain the same system (such as it was) I had been using. First, I resolved to move all my Real Writing to plain text. Microsoft Word drove me nuts, as did the alternative programs that mimicked it. Thanks to a dalliance with the AlphaSmart, I was already accustomed to writing first drafts in plain text, and I strongly preferred it to the constant fiddling with formatting and page cut-offs that inevitably accompanies drafting in Word. (Were I a stronger man, I could just ignore the WYSIWYG mishegas until I was a few drafts in, but alas.)

The other change, of course, was using some kind of reference management system. This was a practical necessity due to the sheer number of sources a dissertation requires, and an aesthetic improvement over long inline footnotes in a text editor. One of my Twitter mutuals turned me on to org-ref, which I used to get together a single giant BibTeX file for the whole project. I could then insert quick citekeys for any reference, and when I needed to export the ox-pandoc packages in Emacs could spit out any format I might need with a few keystrokes.

This recently broke, though, when I started using an up-to-date version of pandoc and discovered, to my consternation, that pandoc-citeproc was deprecated. In practical terms, this meant when I used the ox-pandoc packages to export, my references just showed up as citation keys rather than the actual citations. Any footnote referencing Bauer's Die bürgerliche Revolution in Deutschland, for instance, just showed "@bauer49." I spent a desperate evening trying to get the old Emacs packages to work with a variety of doomed approaches before I resigned to running pandoc commands from the terminal, like a chump. I have to open a separate application and type a full command when I want to export from plain text now. The sublime simplicity of M-x org-pandoc-export-to-... I am no longer permitted to enjoy (if I want my citations to show up, anyway).

I'm sure there are very good reasons for changing the pandoc citation processing system. I'm sure because I spent hours in the developer forums trying to piece my shattered world back together. But the inconvenience was an object-lesson in how Word got so horrible in the first place. Aside from the fussiness of any WYSIWYG word processor, the decades of accumulated cruft unique to Word are an inevitable byproduct of enterprise software's need to accommodate business users with specific workflows that must not be broken. If I had the power to keep dated, crappy features around just because I was used to them, I would absolutely exercise it.

tags: diss