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 one giant BibTeX file for the whole project. (It was only natural I would use a reference management system that barely qualified as one.) I used the ox-pandoc packages in Emacs to 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 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 in a terminal, like a chump. I have to open a separate application and type a command when I want to export from plain text now. The sublime beauty of M-x org-pandoc-export-to-... I am no longer permitted to experience (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 am sure because I spent hours in the developer forums trying to piece my shattered world back together. But the inconvenience was an object-lesson Word got so horrible in the first place. Aside from the inevitable fussiness of WYSIWYG word processing, the decades of accumulated cruft are an inevitable byproduct of enterprise software's need to accommodate business users with very 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