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Citation Management and Writing Tools: LaTeX and BibTeX

A guide describing software to help with citation management, writing, and other parts of the research process.

LaTeX & BibTeX

What is LaTeX?

LaTeX is a typesetting program that takes a plain text file with various commands in it and converts it to a formatted document based on the commands that it has been given. The source file for the document has a file extension of .tex. It is widely used at MIT for theses and other technical papers due to its prowess with mathematical and foreign characters. For more information on LaTeX, see LaTeX on Athena Basics, provided by the Athena On-Line Help system.

What is BibTeX?

BibTeX is a bibliographic tool that is used with LaTeX to help organize the user's references and create a bibliography. A BibTeX user creates a bibliography file that is separate from the LaTeX source file, wth a file extension of .bib. Each reference in the bibliography file is formatted with a certain structure and is given a "key" by which the author can refer to in the source .tex file. For more information on BibTeX, see see MIT IS&T's page: How do I Create Bibliographies in LaTeX.

Citation Management Tools & BibTeX

You can incorporate citation management tools, such as Zotero, Mendeley and JabRef, into your LaTeX/BibTeX workflow to make it easier to manage and build your bibliographies. 

We've created a few quick start guides to set up exports, auto-sync'ing, etc. of your BibTeX files with these tools:

More details on working with specific citation management tools and BibTeX are provided below.

Zotero & BibTeX

Export from Zotero to BibTeX:

  1. To export all of the references in a certain library to BibTeX, click on the Actions drop-down menu in Zotero and select "Export Library..."
  2. To export only certain references, select those references using control-clicks and shift-clicks, then right click one of them and select "Export Selected Items..."
  3. From the dialog box that pops up, select the BibTeX format, and click OK.
  4. Navigate to the directory where you are storing your manuscript (your .tex file), and save the file. This will generate a file in the appropriate format for BibTeX to read and create a bibliography from.

Auto-syncing from Zotero to BibTeX:

Auto-updating your .bib file when you make changes or additions to your Zotero Library is not available directly in Zotero. You can, however, install and enable a Zotero extension, Better BibTeX, to grant you these features. 

  1. Once Better BibTeX is enabled, select the folder/library/items you wish to include in your .bib file as you would do in the basic export process described above.
  2. In the export dialog box, you will now see many more options for your export format. Select the “Better BibTeX” option, and, to set up the autosync, make sure you also check the “Keep updated” box.
  3. Click Ok, name your .bib file and save in the same location as your LaTeX file.

You can adjust or remove a .bib autosync of Zotero records at any time by going to your Zotero preferences and clicking on the Better BibTeX tab, followed by the Automatic Export tab.

For more detailed instructions on setting up your Zotero export, see the Zotero and BibTeX Quick Guide.

Mendeley & BibTeX

Export to BibTeX:

  1. Open Mendeley, and within "My Library" found on the left, select references that you would like to export to BibTeX.
  2. In the drop-down menu in the toolbar at the top of the screen, click "File –> Export" (or ctrl-E if you use keyboard shortcuts. In the dropdown list of file types, chose "BibTeX (*.bib)" and save to the same location as your LaTeX file.

Auto-syncing from Mendeley to BibTeX:

Mendeley built-in auto sync capabilities that update your BibTeX file when changes have been made to your Mendeley library. That said, it can only auto sync your entire library (not a selected subset of references).

  1. Go to Mendeley Desktop preferences, select the BibTeX tab.
  2. Select the box labeled “Enable BibTeX syncing” and select the BiBTeX file option you prefer.
  3. Select the location where you want the generated .bib file(s) to be stored (this should be the same location as your LaTeX file(s)). These files will now automatically sync in this location as changes/additions are made in Mendeley.

For more detailed instructions on setting up your Mendeley export, see the Mendeley and BibTeX Quick Guide.

JabRef & BibTeX

If you primarily create documents in LaTeX (versus a word processing software like Microsoft Word) you may want to consider using JabRef as your primary citation management software.

JabRef is a reference manager that acts as an interface to the BibTeX style used by the LaTeX typesetting system. JabRef is open source and is freely downloadable. The graphical interface allows the user to easily import, edit, search, and group citations in the BibTeX format. It also offers automatic citation key generation. JabRef does not offer any citation styles of its own; instead the citation is generated from the BibTeX file by LaTeX. Specifications for each style are given by the chosen style file.

JabRef can be used on Windows, Linux, and Mac.

For more detailed instructions on setting up JabRef as your LaTeX citation management software, see our JabRef and BibTeX Quick Guide.

Endnote & BibTeX

Export to BibTex:

  1. Open EndNote, and open the library of references that you would like to export to BibTeX.
  2. In the drop-down menu in the toolbar at the top of the screen, click "Select Another Style..." and in the list that appears, chose BibTeX Export. Now you should see the BibTeX-formatted citation in the preview screen.

Note: Auto syncing is not available with EndNote.

Cite references in your document:

  1. Insert the command \cite{citationkey} where citationkey is the data in EndNote's Label field of the reference you are citing.
  2. If you do not have any data in the Label field in EndNote (or if the data in the Label field is not unique for all of your references), you have two options:
    1. Create or update the Label field for each reference that you are citing so that there is unique, distinctive data in the field for every reference. Then export the bibliography again.
    2. Use a text editor to insert a citation key into each reference in the bibliography file that you exported. Simply enter a unique citation key just inside the opening bracket of each reference in your .bib file. An example of a reference entry where the citation key is "angell:GRL" is:

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