Sometimes a technology comes along that is so great it seems almost unjust to former generations. Aviation. The personal computer. The polio vaccine.
One gets the same feeling today when considering a new app out for iPhone and Android. Quick Cite, a 99-cent app, automates the task of putting together a bibliography—that arduous list of books, articles, and other sources consulted that goes at the end of a master's thesis of PhD dissertation. The first thought you have is, "How much time scholars will henceforth save!" The next thought you have is, "Anyone who got a PhD before the year 2011 was a poor sucker."
The app works by using the smartphone's camera to scan the barcode on the back of a book. Then it emails you a citation formatted to fit one of four common bibliographic styles: APA, MLA, Chicago, or IEEE. The app was one of seven developed over seven sleepless days by seven undergraduates at the University of Waterloo. Thus they called the week-long experiment in coding creativity and class-cutting "7Cubed," and even made a little video about it.
How did they do it? "A lot of coffee," 7Cubed's Gareth MacLeod tells Fast Company. "A lot. Of. Coffee. In the last two days I was running on 4-6 espresso's a day." He adds that since the group was coding for Android and iPhone simultaneously, the results became a case study in the vagaries of each format. "At some point in the day it became a race between Android and iPhone. Android took an early lead getting barcode scanning working almost right away, but iPhone's slow-and-steady approach eventually won out, after we on the Android team got stuck on interfacing with the platform. Having said that, the Android app was released that night, whereas iPhone had to wait for approval from the app store!"
There's a slight hiccup in the app, though. It appears that the information embedded in the barcode is sometimes abbreviated or incomplete. The Chronicle of Higher Education test-drove the app and found that the citations that came over had a few glitches, reading "Cambridge Univ Pr.," for instance, where bibliography purists would insist on a full-fledged "Cambridge University Press." Also, barcodes only became standard on library books around the 1970s, so many books won't be scannable.
Ross Robinson, one of the coders, promises an update to address some of the problems "soon" in the comments section of the Chronicle's report.
Just how much time and aggravation does such an app save the next generation of scholars? Let's grab the back of an envelope.
Imagine your dissertation has, say, 200 sources, and sifting through the pile of books and holding one open on your knee while you type takes something on the order of three minutes per book. Copyediting that and getting the formatting consistent will take you another minute or so for every 10 citations if you're extremely speedy. Furthermore, you'll need sanity breaks.
A bit of quick math shows a conservative estimate of something on the order of 11-12 hours spent just on a project of that size, while doing almost nothing else. For larger projects, of course, you'd be spending days or weeks. Indeed, one of Fast Company's trusted sources (okay, our own Kit Eaton), estimates that such an app would have saved him over two weeks on his physics dissertation.
And two weeks, we don't have to tell you, is how long many of us take every year for vacations.
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[Image: Flickr user jlz]