How to choose a bibliographic style for your thesis (and dealing with multilingualism)

Sometimes students ask me how they should write the bibliography. There are so many different styles out there, what is the best choice? This is an important question, and the answer is not straightforward. Of course, the tips and tricks I give here are valid for me only. In other words: if you are not a student of mine, instead of reading random information in a blog, ask your supervisor.

Assuming you are still interested in my opinion on the matter, as many of you know, I am in favour of using LaTeX for typesetting a thesis. A thesis is a highly structured document, there are already a lot of templates you can use for free, so you focus on the content, which is what really matters. If you choose LaTeX, you will use BibTeX for the bibliography. Nowadays, there are many editors for both LaTeX and BibTeX that resembles word processors, so the learning curve for your generation is really lower than before. Moreover, if you are confident to write your thesis always with a good internet connection, you can rely on web services such as Overleaf. You can even share your thesis with me for correction from the TeX source files.

If the previous paragraph is trivial for you, you may want to know what I prefer to use within BibTeX. The answer is clear: the natbib package, with the option of plainnat style. The variety of commands in the package such as \citep{}and \citet{} will facilitate your writing enormously. The price to pay is that you will depend on the package: if you change your mind afterwards, it will cost you a lot of time. My suggestion is: try to write one section, compile and send it to me for a check. If everything is okay, you will have my green light and proceed. Younger users than me would like to start directly with BibLaTeX, which requires e-TeX to run. If this the kind of questions you are asking to yourself, most probably you do not need this blog post at all.

If you are writing your thesis with a WYSIWYG word processor, refer to the Chicago Manual of Style. For a quick look, that includes also examples of web site and social media content, check this section which exemplifies the Author-Date system. More extensive information is in Chapter 15.

Last but not least, you may have to deal with references in many languages, written with a Latinate alphabet (e.g. Italian, Esperanto) or not (e.g. Russian). The first word of advice is: be consistent in the single entry. For example, if the entry is in Italian, write (acd) instead of (ed) for an edited book, and so on. In other words, avoid language salads in the bibliography. If the entry is multilingual, you may use such a solution: (ed / red / acd) if the edited book is in English, Esperanto and Italian — such as one of my publications.

Another word of advice: always refer to the version you actually used; if you consulted the Italian version of the Cours de linguistique générale, don’t insert the French entry of 1916, but the Italian version. Translations are not neutral, an edition can be better than another (in this specific case, the edition by Tullio De Mauro is highly appreciated even in France). If you want to mention that there is a version in another language, put such information at the end of the entry, something like “German version published in 1970” of the classic book in interlinguistics Le lingue inventate by Alessandro Bausani, or “German version Bausani 1970” if you insert that entry in your bibliography too.

Remember: in case of doubt, ask me! Don’t underestimate the time and effort in preparing your bibliography, and — most importantly — don’t leave it at the end of your thesis. Prepare it step by step, during your writing. When you are tired or blocked, polishing your bibliography t is a form of meditation on your work.

Update (2020-01-09): one of the most used styles is APA. Even if you do not want to use it, the tips of the Student Title Page Guide are valid in general and therefore I recommend them.

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