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Bibliography basics

  • In serious works (e.g. scientific reports) you very often refer to (“cite”) other sources, e.g. a book or an article. The citation normally appears within the text, but doesn’t usually contain all the information needed to find the source. Instead, the complete “reference information” for all the cited sources are gathered in a “bibliography” which is usually found in a separate section at the end.
  • The bibliography can be created manually by checking which sources you have cited, gathering the reference information as a list and finally formatting each entry. As you can imagine, this is time consuming and error prone. For instance, every time you add or remove a citation, you may have to fix the bibliography. A better solution is to store the reference information for all the different sources in a “bibliography database” and let the computer automatically produce the bibliography for you.
  • Note that keeping the reference information in a database also allows you to select the style and appearance separately from the choice of what sources the bibliography should contain. This is very useful as journals typically require the bibliography to look a certain way, and different journals have different requirements…


In order to use a consistent nomenclature the following definitions are used within this work. Note that these definitions may vary compared to how they are used by others.

A bibliography list or simply a bibliography is a list of items where each item contains bibliographic information that provides sufficient details to find and uniquely identify a source (i.e. a book, article, web page, or other published work). Having a bibliography is practically mandatory in scientific works, but also frequently occur in non-fiction works. The bibliography is often placed in a section of its own with the heading “Bibliography” or “References”. Usually it is located at the end of a work, but sometimes there are many bibliographies. One such case is a bibliography after each chapter in a book. Another common case is conference proceedings, because each paper within the proceedings has its own bibliography.

The bibliography style refers to the style and formatting of the bibliography and its items. The bibliography list may for instance be enumerated, labelled or sorted alphabetically. Items in the list should be consistently structured and formatted. For instance, each item could start with author names, or it could start with the title.

A citation is an item in the bibliography, i.e. bibliographic information that provides sufficient details to find and uniquely identify a book, article, web page, or other published item.

The citation style refers to the way the complete citation entry appears in the bibliography.

A reference is “brief information cited in the body of a paper that refers the reader to a complete citation in the bibliography”. The reference uniquely identifies the source within the article’s bibliography. The complete citation uniquely identifies the location of the source document. In a wiki, a reference is a link to a citation.

The reference style refers to the way the reference appears in the body of the article, such as “[1]” or “Hawking et al. (2005)”.

BIBTEX is one of the most widely-used standards for defining lists of citations.

Definition of BIBTEX (from
BIBTEX Definition
A {TEX} extension package for bibliographic citations, distributed with {LATEX}. BIBTEX uses a style-independent bibliography database (.bib file) to produce a list of sources, in a customisable style, from citations in a LATEX document. It also supports some other formats. BIBTEX is a separate program from LATEX. LATEX writes information about citations and which .bib files to use in a “.aux” file. BIBTEX reads this file and outputs a “.bbl” file containing LATEX commands to produce the source list. You must then run LATEX again to incorporate the source list in your document. In typeset documents, “BIBTEX” is written in upper case, with the “IB” slightly smaller and with the “E” as a subscript. BIBTEX is described in the {LATEX} book by Lamport.

A bibliography database is a list of key/value pairs, where the key uniquely identifies a citation and the value describes the citation. An author can select a citation from the database using its key. The value may itself consist of field name/field value pairs, such as author, title, year, and publisher.

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Page last modified on 17 November 2006 at 08:55 PM