November 11, 2008

Does cb2bib remove drudgery from bibliography creation?

Author: Bruce Byfield

Many academics and students share a dirty secret: They hate the drudgery of assembling bibliographies. The cb2bib utility attempts to remove some of the drudgery, at least so far as online references go. Designed primarily for use with BibTeX, cb2bib can also be used with other formats once you export the results. However, whether the application actually makes bibliographical tasks easier seems questionable.

cb2bib takes the contents of your desktop clipboard and puts it into a BibTeX database, working automatically to put information into the correct format if you are lucky, or with your manual input if you are not. Since your manual input is added to the automatic search patterns, in theory the automatic formatting should improve as you use cb2bib, although in practice I was unable to detect any improvement. Possibly I did not use it long enough for major improvements to happen.

The c2bib window is dominated by fields for bibliographical information. While that arrangement might seem reasonable at first, in practice you might wish for a larger field for viewing clipboard information if you have to do any manual formatting. As things are, the clipboard viewing field can only display three lines at a time, which can be inconvenient if you are working with more than two or three of bibliographical references at the same time. Below the clipboard viewer is a field for the path to the BibTeX database, and, below that, a toolbar of buttons. The toolbar is carelessly organized, with the exit button in the middle, but, unlike the clipboard viewer, at least large enough to be convenient for use.

Extracting references

When using cb2bib to extract references, be sure that the connection to your desktop's clipboard is toggled on, using the sixth button from the left on the toolbar; you might want to turn it off if you have to interrupt your work with cb2bib for other uses of the clipboard, but, if you fail to turn it back on, you will unable to extract references. You should also change the BibTeX database's name, to avoid having entries from several projects jumbled up in a single database.

cb2bib looks complicated, and has only minimal help available, but is easier to use than you might think at first. Essentially, cb2bib has two work cases. In the first, you copy one or more references in a file, email message, or Web page to your desktop clipboard for processing. In the second, you select any number of PDF files for cb2bib to extract information from.

According to instructions on the cb2bib site, you are supposed to be able to drag and drop PDF files onto the application window, but in practice this feature only worked in KDE. In GNOME (or if you want more control over how the PDFs are processed), you have to click on the PDF button, which is fourth from the left on the toolbar. The button opens up a sub-window in which you can choose such options as whether to open up the processed files to refer to them. In either case, cb2bib converts the PDF files to text using pdftotext and copies the resulting text to the clipboard.

In both work cases, cb2bib displays the content of the clipboard, adding color-coded comments about parts of the content that it has tentatively identified. In addition, it tries to create an entry into the database automatically. If the automatic entry is inadequate -- and, if my experience is any indication, in your first attempts it probably will be -- then you can create the database entry manually.

To create a manual entry, set the type of the reference -- for example, article, book, or conference. Then, select one part of a reference in the clipboard viewer with the mouse. As you do so, a popup list appears displaying possible fields into which you can insert the highlighted string. Choose a field, and continue with the other parts of the reference. When you finish one reference, choose another and continue, making sure that the CITEID field has a different entry for each reference.

Once you have finished all references, export them to a BibTeX file using the second button from the right on the toolbar. From there, you can convert the entry to other formats. One of the quickest ways to convert the result -- assuming that HTML is convenient -- is to copy the BibTeX file into the Online BibTeX Converter and save the resulting page.

Other functions

In addition to extracting bibliographic references, cb2bib also includes several utilities. If you want to locate a reference in the BibTeX database, you can click the third button from the left on the toolbar to open a search page in which you can use regular expressions, specify how the string you enter will be used in the search -- including approximately, all words, or any words -- and which fields and files will be searched.

You can also view the BibTeX database by clicking the toolbar's last button on the right. The resulting window lists all references, and includes an inconveniently small search field as well as bookmarks.

From the second button on the left, you can open the configuration window for cb2bib. Many of the configuration settings, such as those in the Files and Network sub-windows, should probably be left alone by most users. However, you might want to set whether BibTeX displays full or abbreviated author and journal names, or consult pdftotext's man pages to change its parameters under Utilities.

Perhaps the most useful configuration change you can make is in the Fonts window, where you can change how the clipboard viewer displays information. You might want to set a smaller font in order to display more information, or a larger one for easier viewing. I also suggest that you change the gray, yellow, orange, and cyan that cb2bib uses to add comments to the clipboard viewer into colors that are more readable.

Useful or not?

Obviously, cb2bib is most useful to BibTex users if it is useful at all, but whether it makes a bibliography easier to assemble even for them is questionable. The connection to the clipboard can save you hundreds, even thousands, of keystrokes and mouse-clicks compared to manual assembly of sources, but, if you have to do manual formatting, it might cost you as many again in setting up each entry correctly. The story might be different if the automatic extraction worked better out of the box, but as it is, cb2bib might be said to replace one sort of drudgery with another.

Still, cb2bib includes secondary functions that are useful in themselves, such as the PDF extraction, and the database searcher and viewer. If you use BibTex, you might find that these functions alone make cb2bib a worthwhile utility. If you don't, you may need to test cb2bib once or twice to compile a bibliography with it before you decide whether to continue to use it.

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