Saturday, November 8, 2008

Zotero: The Research Tool of the Future?

Are you tired of wading through countless folders on your hard drive to find the slew of Hein downloads, BriefCheck summary reports, and emails that your latest research project generated? Do you find yourself researching and writing papers using three or four different software programs, none of which seems to cooperate with any of the others? Ever wonder why there isn’t an easier way to store and organize the information that you spend countless hours retrieving online?

Well, some rather astute folks at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University have created what they call a “next-generation research tool” that they claim solves these lingering research management problems. This tool, Zotero, is a Mozilla Firefox extension that integrates all the typical tasks that make up the research process (e.g. word-processing, web-based research, note-taking, bibliographic and citation work) into one elegant browser-based tool—and it’s spreading like wildfire. An impressive number of colleges and universities are either promoting Zotero or recommending it outright, and reviewers and researchers within all academic disciplines are raving about how well it simplifies their work. So what’s so wonderful about it? A few key features stand out:

  1. Zotero is free, easy to install, and works within your web browser: Rather than develop yet another expensive stand-alone program that adds yet another component to the research and writing process, Zotero’s developers decided to strengthen our main research tool: the web browser. What’s more, Zotero works within the free Mozilla Firefox browser (sorry, Internet Explorer users), and is perfectly functional offline as well as online. To install Zotero, simply download the latest version of Firefox (if you haven’t already), open up the browser, and download Zotero from the Zotero homepage. Here’s an easy-to-follow video that guides you through the installation process and walks you through Zotero's interface and design:
  2. Zotero actually “senses” the bibliograpic information of the document you’re looking at within your browser: Today's web-based research process leads us to many types of useful documents like library catalog records, newspaper articles, PDFs, blog entries, and videos. Zotero can "sense" the bibliographic information of most types of documents that you encounter during web-based research. Here's how:
  3. Like creating playlists with iTunes? You’ll love Zotero...: Almost all of us have experienced the frustration of managing the fruits of our research through a mystifying array of folders and subfolders that we segment into ever more discrete categories until we can’t retrieve what we’ve gathered, much less make sense of our thinking. By contrast, many of us like nothing better than to download album after album on iTunes and organize countless songs into playlists that we listen to on the go or that we burn for friends. Zotero quite deliberately seizes on this contrast by allowing you to amass an iTunes-like document library that you can then sort into playlist-like document collections. Among other things, this means that you can put a single document into more than one collection by simply dragging and dropping it. Learn more by watching this short screencast.
  4. Zotero’s note-taking and tagging features are excellent: When the time comes to sit down and write up the results of our research, many of us find ourselves facing a collection of word-processed notes, hand-written notes, sticky notes, and back-of the-envelope calculations that, even when organized into neat piles or folders, often prove very cumbersome to use. Zotero solves this problem by allowing you to tag documents using any keyword you choose, to download and use Library of Congress subject headings, to place “sticky notes” right on individual items within your library, and even to create research timelines that allow you to visualize your library items by date of publication and other time criteria. You can also link items to other items, and conduct both basic and advanced searches of your library using various fields. These features and others (like Microsoft Word and Google Docs plug-ins) allow you to manipulate your research library in a variety of ways that make analysis and writing much easier.
The upcoming new version of Zotero will provide users with a new set of great features, including synchronization of a user’s library across more than one computer, free backup of user libraries on Zotero servers, automatic detection of PDF metadata, and online browsing of a user’s library.

Is anyone out there using Zotero? What do you think of it? Are you a convert? Some of you may have heard that Zotero isn't the greatest for legal research---more on that in a future post...

-- Pablo Sandoval

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