Josh Greenberg, Zotero, and Scholarship 2.0 (!! Beta! Zap! Pow!)

Today, my department’s Holmes Workshop speaker was Josh Greenberg (aka, Epistemographer): an historian/STSer/hacker, formerly of the Center for History and New Media, now the “Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship” (how rad a title is that?) at the New York Public Library.

I’ve been following the CHnM for a while now, and I had read about their flagship project Zotero, but I never realized what a revolutionary vision they have for this thing. Zotero is a Firefox plugin that does citations. It was initially conceived as an open source replacement EndNote (the only selling point for which, from what I hear, is that it’s not quite as bad as Word for footnotes).

In his introduction, Josh had an insightful comparison of “Finding vs. Searching”, basically the difference between an organized hierarchy of information (e.g., early Yahoo!, library stacks, and bibliographies), in which serendipitously finding things is the great benefit, and using the ubiquitous search boxes of the modern internet (e.g., Google, online library catalogs), with which you are searching for finite results in an undifferentiated database where anything outside the search parameters is simply invisible. (By random coincidence, he had randomly included this picture by me as an icon of the finding mode; hooray for unattributed syndication!).

Part of the goal of Zotero is to harness the best of both the searching and finding modes by adding a Web 2.0 social element to the citation program. This summer, the developers will be launching a Zotero server that will archive a user’s citation database so that it can be accessed from anywhere and retained in case of hardware failure. The upshot is that, unless the user opts out, the citation database will be used (sans private information, if desired) to create a sort of del.icio.us for scholarly material. Zotero will be useful enough to be used on its own, with the aggregate social aspect as icing that brings the potential for scholarly collaboration and recommendation to a new level. You can find other bibliographies similar to yours to see what like-minded scholars are reading that you aren’t, and you might be able to find other scholars you didn’t know about with similar research interests. In future versions, you’ll be able to share your marginalia, your original sources (interviews, photographs from archives, etc.), etc.

What makes Zotero cool today is the ability to automatically pull citation data from a large and ever-growing list of online sources. So you do a search on your local library catalog, and with one click you import the metadata for that source to your library. Then, when you want to cite that source, you have a wide range of output options (MLA, Chicago Style, EndNote, etc.). What sold me is that it even does export in Wikipedia citation template syntax. I never use the cite templates, because it’s usually easier to just type in the references how I want them. But with Zotero, I’m going to start using them. For the Wikipedians reading this, I recommend trying it out (make sure you get Beta 4, from the Zotero website; the one straight from Firefox is out of date and doesn’t have the Wikipedia support). It’s under heavy development and improving rapidly, but it’s already a very helpful thing.

3 thoughts on “Josh Greenberg, Zotero, and Scholarship 2.0 (!! Beta! Zap! Pow!)”

  1. Such webservices already exists, with Connotea or CiteULike.

    One of the recurring claim with such services is that the software is (or should be) open source. For instance, Connotea is open-source, but not CiteULike.

    But I find harmfull that there is only a few discussions around the availability of the content itself.

    Wikipedia shows that the true issue is the licence of the data. The software used to present this data is important too, but secondary. Here, Zotero does not seems to measure the crucial need of a free content (well, on their web site).

    The two competitors are not planning to freeing their data: Connotea does not give access to its whole database, CiteULike does, but on demand and it retains all the rights.

    In my opinion, Zotero could tell apart by releasing their database under an open-source license. Just look at Wikipedia, and learn from its experience.

  2. From what Josh described, they probably won’t be releasing their database as a whole, but they will be offering an API that allows people to use pretty much everything but the private information. In other words, I think they realize the desirability of free data as well as free software. It may not be on the website, but the developers are definitely talking about these issues.

    The plan for Zotero is to “leverage solipsism” as Josh explained it, to create a basic program and service that useful enough on its own to eat up part of the EndNote market and create a strong userbase, and by the time the social features and content aspects come online, they will already be close to the critical mass it would take to make it worthwhile.

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