Make your citations look exactly how they should with Mendeley's visual citation style editor

Image via kalyan02

We’re very happy to announce the release of the first true “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” citation style editor for open source CSL citation styles – produced in collaboration with Columbia University Libraries and supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Most academic journals insist that papers submitted to them conform to the journal’s own idiosyncratic style of citing research. This has led to a proliferation of thousands of different citation styles, often with only minuscule differences in things like the placement of commas or use of italics. To support their users in this arduous task, modern reference management tools like ours ship with 2789 different citation styles for use when formatting a bibliography in Word or Open Office.

It turns out that 2789 was still not enough! Being able to edit and create new citation styles easily was the top-ranked feature request by a wide margin on our user feedback board. Researchers frequently lamented that the one particular style they needed was not covered, or that they were unable to switch from legacy applications such as EndNote or RefWorks as long as a particular style was lacking. We could have done what these older applications did and create our own closed, proprietary, citation style editor to likewise prevent people from easily switching to another tool, but that’s not how we do things at Mendeley. Because we implement CSL, the open source citation style standard first implemented by Zotero, we were able to work with the open source community to develop an visual, what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor for these styles to not only make it easier for our researchers to customize and create styles, but also to make it easier for them to collaborate with colleagues who may use a different tool such as Zotero, Papers, or another of the many applications which have since implemented the CSL standard.

We’ve used CSL styles from the start, but until now it’s been a bit difficult to customize the styles, because that required a knowledge of XML syntax. This meant that creating majority of researchers editing or creating styles was out of their reach. The new WYSIWYG citation style editor allows anyone to click on any element of a citation they would like to change and then format the output by selecting some properties to apply to that element of the citation. The output is saved in CSL-compliant XML and can thus be used in any other reference management tool. If a researcher does not know the name of the citation style they need, they can simply enter an example citation, and the CSL Editor will suggest matching styles.

As you might expect from us by now, the way we have set this up means that you don’t just personally benefit from having an easier way to customize your own styles. Changes made to styles locally can propagate back to the central style repository where they can be used by everyone. Although this feature isn’t fully ready yet, think of it as the Wikipedia of citation styles.

Jeffrey Lancaster, Emerging Technologies Coordinator at Columbia University Libraries was our academic collaborator on this project and he said: “Developing the CSL editor with Mendeley provided Columbia University Libraries an opportunity to meet a need held by researchers across many diverse disciplines. Engaging with highly skilled Mendeley developers and the open-source community enabled us to successfully achieve a common goal that contributes to an ever-growing set of tools available for the research process; this model of collaboration will no doubt find many other problems to solve as technology continues to improve the academic research workflow.”

We’ll do more posts over the next few weeks and into the Spring on how to use the editor to find, create, or modify a citation style to your needs, but it’s really quite easy, so you may just want to jump in and get started. You’ll need to do a one-time authorization for the editor to access your account and then you can start editing. Here’s some examples of simple CSL style edits.

We have open-sourced the code of the CSL Editor under the MIT license.

6 thoughts on “Make your citations look exactly how they should with Mendeley's visual citation style editor

  1. Its great that this has been made available to all rather than locked into Mendeley Desktop. Hope it leads to styles being created and improved more rapidly for the central repository.

    Regarding, “Changes made to styles locally can propagate back to the central style repository where they can be used by everyone”

    Is there any kind of quality control involved?

  2. @osm: all submissions to the central repository at are screened by hand. Since the volume of submissions is already non-trivial, I mostly verify that styles are submitted with correct and complete metadata. We are more careful about changes to the more popular styles (like APA), but otherwise I usually accept anything that’s valid CSL and is accompanied by some comments.

    Our current workflow for accepting style edits doesn’t really scale very well, though (mostly because there are only 2-3 volunteers who screen submissions), so we’ll have to see how things work out if/when the CSL editor becomes popular.

  3. Hi osm,
    I’m part of the small team of people working on and maintaining the citation style language and the central repository from which Mendeley (and Zotero, Papers et al) draw their styles. While we can’t check every style that gets submitted to us for conformance with the style guide, we do perform basic quality control before we accept anything to the repository, yes. The basic steps for submitting styles are the same for styles created with the style editor:

    As you know (having seen you post before, I believe) we’re also always happy to fix styles once they’re up. The easiest way to report style errors is – for legacy reasons – the Zotero forum, though please make sure to mention which product you’re using to avoid confusion.

  4. Wow!!! This is great. Thank you very much Mendeley and thank you very much Columbia University for this great academic achievement. We have been anxiously waiting for this day and am glad it has finally come-promise fulfilled. Now the sky is the limit as far as citation styles are concerned and am happy as a Mendeley advisor I can now tell my friends who complained about this feature “see now I told you it was coming, its here now”! Congratulations to us all.

  5. This is the one single thing I was missing from my Mendeley experience. Great work!

  6. Hi,

    I am currently preparing a thesis on Music History and have been using Mendeley on all my devices. As someone who is not the best technically I have found that integrating all of my devices with Mendeley has been a breeze!

    The Citation plugin in Word saves me a huge amount of time and this new feature really wraps up a complete package you are now offering! Well done!

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