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## Secret Tools of the Engineering Grad Student, Part 4: BibConverter

As you begin writing academic papers, you will need to cite the work of other researchers. From the prior two posts in this series, you know about using LaTeX to typeset your paper, and using JabRef to store your bibliographic references. However, typing in all the citation information by hand is rather tedious. Your ability to search the research literature is greatly enhanced if your academic institution provides you with access to databases of the engineering literature (Engineering Village, IEEE Xplore, Web of Science). All of these services allow you to export bibliographic data to a file on your computer, which you can then import into JabRef. However, there is a better way: BibConverter.

The brainchild of Kjell Magne Fauske, BibConverter is a free online service that converts a web page of information into a BibTex reference. While you are browsing through one of the article databases, you will likely find a paper you want to reference. Instead of downloading a citation file, simply copy the entire web page to your desktop, go to BibConverter, and paste the clipboard contents into the provided box. Click on the “Convert” button, and now you have a valid BibTex reference, that will look something like this:

@ARTICLE{Kalman1960,
title = {New approach to linear filtering and prediction problems},
author = {Kalman, R. E.},
year = {1960},
volume = {82},
number = {1},
pages = {35--45},
month = mar,
abstract = {Classical Wiener problem (filtering and prediction) is re-examined in
discrete case using author's new ("state transition") method of
analysis of dynamic systems; general solution is developed in
terms of conditional expectations; this gives result of
greatest possible generality when only first and second-order
statistical averages are used; basic concepts of theory of
random processes reviewed.},
}


Copy this data to the clipboard, and go to JabRef. Create a new BibTex entry with “Ctrl+N”, select the “Article” entry type, and then replace the “BibTex Source” entry with your clipboard contents. Once you’ve done this once or twice, it will seem quite natural, and it saves you the time and mess of having to clean up all the citation files that will start to litter your system. You can even download a bookmarklet from the BibConverter site to save you the trouble of surfing to the BibConverter site and selecting the proper database format. This service has saved me hours of time over the past several years.

[Note: IEEE Xplore recently changed it’s online format, and it looks like BibConverter is currently unable to process data from that service.]

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## Secret Tools of the Engineering Grad Student, Part 3: JabRef

If you write academic papers, then you need to maintain a database of the references you cite. Assuming that you use LaTeX, this is typically accomplished by creating a BibTeX file that contains the needed bibliographical data. (Note that, in addition to identifying this particular data format, you may also see the term “BibTeX” being used to reference the software program that pulls information out of the BibTeX file and integrates it into a compiled LaTeX document.)

While it is possible to create a BibTeX file using nothing more than a text editor, it saves time to import such information into a program designed for this purpose. Always pleased to uncover free software, I’ve found the open source program JabRef to be a powerful citation manager. Many of the engineering article databases (Compendex, IEEEXplore, Web of Science, etc.) allow you to export bibliographical data for the papers they store. It turns out that there are many formats for exporting such data, but JabRef allows most of these formats to be imported directly into its BibTeX database.

Since JabRef runs on the Java Virtual Machine, it works with Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. In fact, if you don’t want to be bothered downloading JabRef, you can launch the software over the web.

Alternatives to JabRef include Firefox extension Zotero, Mac program BibDesk, and commercial program Endnote.

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## Secret Tools of the Engineering Grad Student, Part 2: LaTeX

If you are going to write a dissertation (or any other paper for that matter) with significant mathematical content, you will discover that the typesetting of your equations proceeds much better if you use LaTeX. While there is a steep learning curve, you will save a good bit of time down the road if you get comfortable with LaTeX (pronounced “Lay-tech”) early on. Here’s an equation for the Fourier transform rendered with this typesetting system:

F(f) = \int_{-\infty}^\infty f(t) e^{-j2\pi ft} dt

This equation is created with the following code:

 F(f) = \int_{-\infty}^\infty f(t) e^{-j2\pi ft} dt

As you can probably figure out, mathematical symbols are created in LaTeX with text keywords preceded by a backslash. In addition to the improved typesetting, this means that you can quickly update many equations at once by simply searching for, and replacing, text strings. Thus, if you wanted to convert the above equation to be a function of g, instead of f, a simple text replacement would update all the equations in one fell swoop. Contrast this to the equation-by-equation corrections required if one is using MathType to typeset mathematics inside a Microsoft Word document.

While there are many benefits to using LaTeX, it does take a little getting used to. In particular, you may find yourself trying to control a lot of factors (margins, paragraph spacing, etc.) that are easy to modify in a word processor, but difficult to adjust in LaTeX. In the beginning, don’t worry about trying to control the output; focus instead on getting your equations to typeset correctly. Also, expect to spend some time searching for documentation. While most everything you will want to do has been done already, it sometimes takes a while to hunt down the correct command. (Hint: If you absolutely must play with the margins, use the geometry package.)

Significant time savings occur with LaTeX because templates for most publications types have already been defined. Thus, if I want to publish an IEEE paper, I simply drop my document into an IEEE template. Same paper in ASME format? Simply change to the appropriate ASME template. Need advanced math formatting commands? Use the AMS package. While similar templates are typically available for Microsoft Word as well, I often find myself hunting from paragraph to paragraph in Word, trying to discover why the formating has gone askew midway through the document. This is rarely a problem in LaTeX. And to produce my dissertation? Simply use the appropriate thesis style (your university may have its own format).

On my XP system (yes, I’m a dinosaur), I’ve had good luck using MikTex as my LaTeX implementation. One of the nicest features about the MikTex software (other than it being free) is that, when it encounters a package name it does not have, it goes out on the net and attempts to find the package for you. This has frequently saved me from having to install such code manually. While any text editor will work to generate LaTeX documents, I’ve always used WinEdt. Although WinEdt is not free, I’ve not regretted the \$30 it cost me for a student license, as it integrates quite nicely with MikTeX.

If you are interested in learning more about using LaTeX, there is some decent documentation on getting started available from the LaTeX project site, as well as the WikiBooks site. When you see references to “LaTeX2e,” this simply indicates the current version of the LaTeX program. Similarly, “LaTeX3” refers to the next generation of the LaTeX software. Learning LaTex is initially frustrating, but you’re an engineering grad student. You’re not the type to choose the easy path. So download the software and give LaTeX a try. I suggest starting with a study sheet of equations for an upcoming exam. You’ll learn how to construct equations without needing to worry about paragraph formatting.

[Hint: Find an equation you like in Wikipedia? Right click on the equation and access the image properties. The associated text will be the LaTeX code used to generate the equation.]