The mark of Zotero (software review)


I’ve made it my tedious, stick-up-the-butt habit to intermittently harangue others in the blogosphere about one thing: the need to dig in to original experiences or primary data, instead of just “adding to the chamber of echoes” — that is, re-re-re-hashing highly processed media reports or press releases.

If you’re writing (say) about sewer overflows, please: get in to one! (In the company of safety-oriented professionals only, of course.)

photo by flickr user owlhere, licensed under Creative Commons. see

If lieu of that, study a technical report about the number of miles of giant pipe produced, or how and why such systems are designed to overflow.

You might find that it’s not just bloggers that get basic facts wrong, it’s also professional journalists. They don’t know any more about sewers than you, and if the only sources they rely on are “expert” flacks from various interest groups their stories will be missing some really important context.

Still I know that using primary data isn’t easy. Finding and comprehending it is more work. And wrangling facts can be like herding cats: when you’ve got hold of one, catching another lets the first one squibble out of your hands. Documents on the web move and change. Links disappear. Accountability becomes fluid.

Thankfully there’s a new, totally free piece of software that can really help wrangling all those squirmy cats — oops, I mean facts. And statements. And ideas. It’s called Zotero, and though it’s currently still in beta, I recommend it now.

Zotero is a Firefox extension (it works inside your browser) designed for research and scholarship, and (as a user of two competing commercial products) I can say it is the best “bibliographic research software” I have seen for the Internet era. Zotero is three things simultaneously:

1. A bookmark manager with an all-important twist. Besides putting bookmarks in flexible folders and collections, it has this incredibly important and useful feature: IT CAN MAKE FLAWLESS, COMPLETE COPIES OF WEB PAGES AND STORE THEM LOCALLY, ON YOUR MACHINE.

That means that when you find an stupendously inane or important statement or document on somebody’s site, you can copy it and document it before it disappears or the URL changes. This is especially important for government and corporate sites where embarrassing and/or truthful documents often get posted for short periods — and then get erased or mollified. I’ve been there, it happens.

It’s also useful if you’re not connected to the net — you can look at those saved pages and work with Firefox/Zotero offline.

2. A bibliographic research tool that can scan web pages providing bibliographic information (scientific journal databases, the library of congress catalog, even and save citation information and attachments such as pdf documents, sometimes automatically. It can also create bibliography lists. Future editions should be more integrated with word processors for a more seamless link between writing and citing data — essential for academics, but good for amateurs too, if they want to really document everything they’re writing.

3. A notetaking system. You can add notes and other attachments to any item (book citation, web page copy, etc) you have stored in zotero. You can also use zotero to make a note from any selected text on a web page. That means you can record your thoughts about an item as you are reading and recording it.

As a piece of beta software, Zotero still has some important limitations — a number of major databases don’t work with the automatic bibliography detection, for example.

But Zotero responds to a real need and it does it the right way. Its open source nature is key, I think. The two commercial products I have used, Biblioscape and Papyrus (may it rest in peace in the rarified, hallowed halls of great DOS programs), were well done for their time, but obviously the slim market for commercial research software hurt the projects. Staffing for those products was clearly sparse and new versions came out very slowly or not at all. Biblioscape’s reliance on Internet Explorer caused some technical problems and tied users to Windows.

Since Zotero is open source, anyone can get involved and try to tweak or improve it. It’s a more flexible mode of development for a kind of software that doesn’t have a huge commercial market. Thanks to the Zotero developers and the Center for History and New Media for getting it started.

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