It would be useful if Obsidian could implement a basic mechanism for citing references, which can then be extended with plugins. I think that it should be a core feature / plugin because I fear that plugins will not implement citations consistently.
I also want to stress that what I will describe can useful well beyond academia and does not rely on any external software or format.
Use case or problem
I am using a lot of citations in two different contexts. First, to take notes on what I am reading for my research – for this, the plugin
obsidian-citation-plugin is a really promising start since it implements exactly the features I would need in this context.
Second, for more general topics and here the plugin is less useful. For example, I want to refer to a discussion, a seminar or to some book, but without creating an entry in Zotero nor a dedicated Obsidian note for the reasons below.
There are several motivations to have a built-in mechanism:
- to not rely on external and specific tools (as pointed in this post)
- to setup a standard
- uniformize how citations are displayed (both in Markdown preview and PDF export)
- to simplify the workflow
- to have all the data in one place
- combine several citations
Let me discuss why the plugin
obsidian-citation has problems here:
- rely on an external bibliography file (bibtex or csl-json)
- setup its own template (but follows Pandoc, which is good)
- rely on normal internal links, so not convenient (appears just as a link, without brackets or anything to show it is a citation, and also information is lost in PDF export)
- for every new item, one has to enter it in Zotero (or the software managing the bibliography), export the library, reimport in Obsidian (I have a huge library, so I don’t want to add items I will use in a single note in Obsidian only, and the import/export is really slow)
- all the data (authors, title, link, etc.) are saved in a separate Obsidian note, so accessing the information requires to create a note for everything
- fail for the same reason as point 3
Finally, let me mention that markdown footnotes are not addressing these problems. There is two major drawbacks:
- they don’t allow specifying more information inline (such as page or section), and I find stupid to write several times the same footnote, just changing a page number
- referring several times to the same footnote creates new backlinks and it becomes quickly ugly
I think the plugin is great and I am sure it will become a must-have for researchers. However, I think it is important to have citations defined in the core.
I would suggest the following features to be implement as part of the core:
- add pandoc-style citations (see also this page and cite-proc):
some text [@someBook, section 2]
- allow to list references in the note itself, for example by writing
[@someBook]: Author 1, Title of the book (2021)
- define basic styling for displaying the citations in Markdown and PDF (for example by dafault: display brackets around citations, list all references in a section at the bottom)
- if a citation is not found, then:
a. look for a file with the same name/alias in the defined citation folder
b. provide the list to plugins to get information from external sources and process it (for example, from bibtex using pandoc)
Point 2) is not standard. Pandoc allows to put bibliography inside the YAML block, however the format is really verbose, so it explains why I am proposing this way. In particular, it goes well with point 1: if one has to process the files outside Obsidian, it is easy to convert the citations to footnotes by replacing
^ and removing everything after the comma (or doing more processing if there are several citations) as a workaround.
Point 4a) looks like what does the plugin obsidian-citation, but there is a difference. I think the concept of having a special folder collecting all notes related to references makes sense (in the same way that you have a folder for daily notes). Now, these notes can be written by hand or populated using a 3rd party plugin such as obsidian-citation. The point is that one should not be forced to have a note for each citation.