Ryan Schuetzler

Researcher and techie extraordinaire

LaTeX for Researchers, Part 2: Citations

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In Part 1 we covered the very basics of creating a document. With that you have basically everything you need to start writing your paper. Here’s a quick review of the basic commands:

  1. \documentclass{article} is the first thing in your document, and it tells LaTeX you want to use the “article” style.
  2. \title and \author give LaTeX the basic information about your paper to put in the Title area.
  3. \begin{document} and \end{document} are the beginning and ending of the content of your paper. Anything before the \begin is part of the preamble.
  4. \section, \subsection and \subsubsection are the commands to create section headers. That’s imporant for styling your document.

A quick reminder here: the beauty of LaTeX comes from not worrying about the formatting while you write your document. I used to think this was weird, since I have to think about it when I put in the \section or whatever other tags. But I was wrong. When you use a section tag, you are simply telling LaTeX what it is, not how it should look. The template, in this case article, takes care of the looks for you. It also makes changing the formatting of a document a much more consistent process than if you instead said “I want these 3 words to be 24pt font, bold, and with a 2 line break after.” Simply saying \section means you can change all section headers at the same time.


One of the big issues when writing a research paper is citation management. For this reason, about 150 tools exist to help researchers get through it. You can use EndNote, Mendeley, Qiqqa, Zotero, Word’s built-in (blech!), or a gajillion other citation management packages to take care of it for you. Some of them work better than others, but I have yet to find one that doesn’t break for sometimes silly reasons. Sometimes the bibliography isn’t right, sometimes citations aren’t quite right, and I have never found one that works well when collaborating with a bunch of people.

So, why not use LaTeX? As with all things LaTeX, it’s going to take a bit of work to learn, but in the long run, the payoff in terms of reduced headaches, panic attacks, and nights spent crying wondering why you can’t change the title of this article to Title Case will make it all worthwhile. So let’s get started.


There are two basic requirements for citing papers in LaTeX: (1) a .bib file containing your references, and (2) the biblatex package. You can use other packages to do citations, but biblatex is robust, powerful, and easier to customize than the other common packages. I also recommend using the Biber program, but we can get by without that for now.

.bib File

So, the first thing you need is a .bib file that contains your references. Many programs will make this for you. For simplicity’s sake, let’s start out with Zotero. Zotero provides a relatively easy-to-use interface for creating references. It’s also free to use, and provides the ability to share libraries, which comes in handy when you’re collaborating with others. So download the Zotero program (standalone or the Firefox plugin) and create a few citations. I won’t go into detail how to do that here, but if you need help you can check out their tutorial on adding things to your Zotero library.

Once you have the citations created in Zotero, you can export them into a .bib file for use by BibLaTeX. To do this, highlight the citations you wish to export, then right-click and select “Export Items…”, select BibLaTeX from the drop-down menu, then click “OK” and select where you would like to place the file. You’ll want this file in the same directory as the .tex file we’ll create shortly. You can uncheck the boxes for Exporting Notes, Files, and Journal Abbreviations. The resulting file should look a bit like this:

Since it will mostly be automatically generated, I won’t go into too much detail on the formatting, but there are a few tips I’ve come across for making your bibliography generation as easy as possible:

  1. Put article titles in Title Case. BibLaTeX can handle automatic de-captalization as required by formats like APA, but it cannot (at least that I’ve found) do capitalization for you. So make everything Title Case (initial caps) in your .bib file and you should be good to go.
  2. Use {} when you need capitalization. Things like acronymns or company names in titles might get messed up when BibLaTeX is formatting a document. To force BibLaTeX to keep capitalization on a word, surround it with {}. If you notice from my example, NJ in the location of the second reference is surrounded as such {NJ}. That means that, no matter what happens, NJ will always appear as NJ, and never nj or Nj.
  3. But don’t surround everything with {}. You could go crazy and surround entire titles with double-braces (Mendeley currently does this and it sucks. If you do that, the title will always be capitalized exactly as it is in your .bib file. But that means that BibLaTeX can’t automatically change the capitalization when the style requires it. For this reason, use {} only when you have to.

So now we’ve got our .bib file, and we’re ready to start citing things.

Your .tex File Preamble

So before we get to cite things in the document, we’ve got to tell LaTeX that we’re going to be doing some citations. So let’s look at what we need in the preamble.

It looks a lot like our basic preamble, with a couple small additions:

  1. \usepackage[backend=bibtex,style=authoryear]{biblatex}. This tells LaTeX that we’ll be using the biblatex package to do our citations. It also tells it how we want them to be styled. As a social science researcher, I like to use author-year formats. Other options include numeric and alphabetic, if you’re into that kind of thing.
  2. \addbibresource{library.bib}. This tells BibLaTeX where my references are stored. Inside the braces is the name of the .bib file we created above. As I said, this should go in the same directory as the .tex file we’re creating right now.

And that’s it. biblatex has a bunch of options to customize the way your citations and references section look, so if you want to tweak things to look just right, take a look at the biblatex documentation. Otherwise, let’s move on to how to actually cite things in our paper.

Citing Things in .tex

The most important thing to know when citing a paper from your .bib file is its cite key. That is the first string after the opening { of the reference. For example, the cite key for the first article in my .bib file is ackoff\_management\_1961. The cite key is how biblatex identifies which reference you are referring to.

Citing a paper is very simple and consistent. Biblatex offers just about every option you could need for citing, but all of them work the exact same way: \command{} with a list of cite keys inside the braces. Here are some of the commands, and what they do:

  • \autocite{}. This will be your most used. This will create parenthetical citations if the style calls for it (like most author-year styles do), or include just the number if that’s what the style wants
  • \textcite{}. This is another favorite. This one is used when you want the author(s)‘ name(s) in the body of your document. For example, if I wanted “Achoff (1961) said that…” in my paper, I could just used \textcite{ackoff\_management\_1961} said that.... This way if my citation style changes, the citation is always done correctly.
  • \citeyear and \citeauthor can be used when you want to cite just the year or author, respectively.

There are dozens of other commands available in biblatex, but these are the most commonly used (in my experience).

At the end of your document, you probably want to print a bibliography or references section. This is done with the \printbibliography command.

So let’s look at an example, using the .bib from above as our bibliography. In this case, I’ve named it blog.bib.

You can see a couple things here that we haven’t talked about yet.

  1. Multiple citations. Sometimes you need to cite a few papers at once. For that you can just use a comma to separate the cite keys. List them all in the same cite command and you’ll have them all together.
  2. Leaving citations out. If you notice in my .bib file, I have a citation to a Bonini paper that does not appear anywhere in the .tex document. If a reference is not cited, it is left out of the reference section. This means that you can have one giant .bib file containing every reference to every paper you have ever seen, read, thought about, or heard of. It might make it a bit tougher to find what you’re looking for, but it won’t cause an explosion in your references section.

Well, I think that about covers it. You now have the tools you need to automatically generate a bibliography as you are writing your master works. Next time we’ll cover how to insert figures and, if you’re lucky, tables.

Continue to Part 3: Figures