Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Zotero and Legal Research: Almost there....

A few days ago I wrote about the many virtues of Zotero, the Firefox browser extension that is now very popular among researchers across the academic spectrum. Unfortunately, as I alluded to at the end of that entry, Zotero hasn’t been a hit among legal researchers: within the legal academy, only the Harvard Law Library and the University of Wisconsin Law School are recommending it to their students and faculty. Why? Well, many within the legal community simply don’t know about the software, but it’s also the case that Zotero just doesn’t work very well with the databases that legal researchers use most often, like Westlaw, LexisNexis, and Hein Online. Have a look at the Zotero law discussion forum for a sense of what the current limitations and challenges are (among the challenges is a recent lawsuit that Thomson Reuters, Westlaw’s parent company, filed to shut down Zotero on the ground that Zotero’s creators reverse-engineered Endnote, a Thomson Reuters bibliography program).

The good news is that it does seem that all the essential elements are in place for Zotero to someday be as useful to lawyers, law professors, and law students as it has been to researchers in other fields. To begin with, legal researchers can use the Microsoft Word and Google Docs plug-ins to easily insert bibliographic information downloaded from websites that are Zotero-compatible (not all legally-relevant material comes from Westlaw and Lexis!). What’s more, Zotero users can download a Bluebook style that, when perfected, should make citation a snap. And it's probably fair to say that as more websites become Zotero-compatible, vendors like Westlaw and Lexis will feel pressure to ensure that their databases are capable of leveraging all of Zotero’s features.

So, in short, Zotero isn’t quite “there” yet as far as legal research is concerned. But it’s an ambitious venture that, when fully functional, might very well transform the way we write briefs, manage law review source cites, and write papers---it’s really just a matter of time.

Anyone out there using Zotero for legal research projects? What are the limitations you've encountered? Do the benefits of using Zotero make up for them?

-- Pablo Sandoval

1 comment:

Kristopher Nelson said...

Zotero worked pretty well for collecting resources and dropping them into footnotes for a research project I just finished (for Int'l Legal Research).

Zotero's limited Bluebook format requires lots of cleanup, and I had to enter all the info into Zotero manually, but it was still quite useful. Hopefully it keeps getting better!