OttoBib: Great idea, too bad it doesn't work right by jgn on Thursday, February 21, 2008 in Technology

A long, long, long, long time ago, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to automate bibliographies. At this point, in 2008, the 900-lb. gorilla is probably EndNote. EndNote was very close to formatting a bibliography perfectly in a number of styles. Another product I really liked was Citation, by Oberon. Citation excelled in some of the nastier problems of the University of Chicago style -- for example, named volumes in a series.

So along comes OttoBib. The idea? Enter an ISBN number, and get a formatted bibliography entry. So, for example, suppose I put in the ISBN for The Adventures of Mark Twain, edited by Jim Phelan and others (0312144644). And here's what you get for the MLA format:

Twain, Mark Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Er, hello? Where is the comma after "Mark"? And why aren't the editors listed (their roles are given in the ISBN record)? And, um, "et. al."? Could we please spell it correctly (it's "et al.")? And, yo, "et al." means "and others": Are we really supposed to believe that Mark Twain collaborated with others as an author on this book?

I came across this product on, and thought: Wow, that's neat. But it's simply not correct, and when it comes to book publishing and/or your sniffy English professor, anything other than correct doesn't cut it. Personally, I don't put a lot of stock in getting this kind of thing exactly right (attributed to Mark Twain: "Anyone who can't spell a word more than one way isn't very smart"), but bibliographical formats are like network protocol specs: It's either right . . . or wrong.

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