Return of the Mark of Zotero

New digital tools help you manage your research files. Scott McLemee gazes into "the cloud."

July 1, 2009

When psychiatrists bring out the next edition of their standard reference, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, perhaps it should list a new disorder, Social Networking Fatigue Syndrome, since this is bound to reach epidemic proportions by spring 2010. By then, an enterprising digital entrepreneur is bound to have launched something that will be known, at first, as “the next Twitter/ Facebook/ YouTube.” (If that very turn of phrase fills you with paralyzing ennui, there is a pretty good chance you have SNFS.)

Man is, of course, the tool-making animal -- but can’t we maybe give it a rest for a while? Evidently not. At this point we need digital tools to manage all the digital tools we have on hand. One day all of our devices will be able to communicate among themselves (“friending” each other while we aren’t looking) which I’m pretty sure leads to an apocalyptic scenario in which human beings end up living in caves.

And yet, damn it, some of the tools are useful. A couple of years ago, this column pointed out an application that seemed a genuinely useful and non-time-wasting addition to the intellectual workbench. This was Zotero, a plug-in for the Firefox browser, Zotero allows you to gather, organize, and annotate material while doing research online.

With Zotero, you can build up a collection of digital documents, cataloging and sorting it as you go. You can gloss the material so harvested, attaching your notes as you go. Zotero is particularly useful for gathering bibliographical data, and allows you to export it in a wide range of standard scholarly citation formats.

Produced by the Center for New Media History at George Mason University, Zotero was (and remains) free. When I wrote about it in ‘07, enthusiasts were looking forward to Zotero 2.0 -- and not patiently.

Various upgrades became available, but the substantially reworked Zotero was only released six weeks ago, in mid-May. At the time, as luck would have it, I was in a clinic being treated for exposure to more than 400 blog feeds per day. The twitchiness having now abated, I’ve been briefed on the latest model of Zotero by an “information-research specialist,” which is what librarians call themselves these days.

The distinctive thing about Zotero 2.0, now in its beta version, is that it will allow you to store your collection (i.e., digital document archive, plus notes, plus bibliographical data) on a server, rather than on your hard drive. This has at least two important consequences.

The first is that you can add to your Zotero files – or retrieve them – from any computer with web access. The old version stored the data on whatever machine you happened to be using at the time. I have a laptop somewhere in my study, for example, that contains records gathered last year ago, but not available to me at the moment because I am not exactly sure where that laptop is. Once I find it, however, it will be possible to ship this data off into “the cloud.” That means I can synchronize my old laptop, our household desktop computer, and the netbook I do most of my writing on now, so that the same Zotero files are always available on all of them. This was possible with the earlier version, but you had to make a point of transferring the files, which evidently I never got around to doing.

The other major development is that Zotero 2.0 allows users to create groups that can share data. Members of a class or a research group are able to transfer files into a common pool. (So far, it is possible to do this with bibliographical references but not with documents, though the Zotero people are working on finding a way to store the latter.)

You also have the option of creating a sort of haute Facebook presence. Dan Cohen, the director of the Center, explains: “Zotero users get a personal page with a short biography and the ability to list their discipline and interests, create an online CV (simple to export to other sites), and grant access to their libraries.”

Thanks to such profiles, it should be easier to find other researchers who share your particular interests, and so engage in the cooperative exchange of references and ideas -- at least, assuming your notion of the life of the mind is not that of a zero sum game, or indeed of bellum omnia contra omnes. It will be interesting to see how that shakes out, discipline by discipline, sub-field by sub-field.

Efforts to forecast the long-term effect of scholarly social networking (not only on research but on the institutions and mechanisms of academic publishing) tends to produce either science fiction or hyperventilation. I’ll try to stop short of either and just move along quietly to another, slightly tangential development that came to my attention in the wake of Zotero 2.0.

It is a digital tool called Webnotes. At first blush it seems a little like Zotero except that it isn’t free. Rather, you can get a bare-bones version for no charge, but the fully equipped model runs at least $10 per month. The company gave me trial access to Webnotes, which was then reviewed with the expert assistance of my in-house information-research specialist. (Reader, I married her.)

As with Zotero, Webnotes enables you to download digital documents and to create files to organize them. But it lacks Zotero’s really impressive capacity to recognize, absorb, and flexibly rearrange bibliographical references.

It makes up for this, to some degree, by allowing you to highlight and make notes on a wider range of digital documents than you can through Zotero alone – in particular, PDFs – and to do so with great ease. The user is able to attach the equivalent of a post-it note to a given word or passage in a document. These annotations are then listed in the index for your collection, with a link that allows you to go directly to the passage and note in question. The design also makes it easy to email the glossed document.

All of this would be particularly helpful when making (or requesting) revisions in a manuscript, for example. Its value as a tool for researchers is rather more limited, though it might be helpful to people who deal with relatively small numbers of documents that come without metadata, or who don’t need to prepare bibliographies.

Another noteworthy aspect of Webnotes is that, unlike Zotero, you can use it in browsers other than Firefox. I tried it out in Internet Explorer, which may have been the first time I've touched IE in years. (The folks at Zotero have indicated that they are working on ways to make their product work with other browsers -- but the April 1st dateline of this announcement bears noting.)

The ability to highlight and annotate passages in PDFs is very welcome. It is possible to do this without Webnotes provided you have the “pro” version of Adobe, but I don’t, and found this feature appealing. As an acid test, I used Webnotes with a document that had been scanned from a fifty-year old mimeographed text and found that it worked just fine.

Obviously this is a feature that would be valuable to see incorporated into future incarnations of Zotero, but for now I’m glad to have the use of Webnotes as well.


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