You say zoh-TAIR-oh, I say zoh-TEER-oh…

As the trusty Cam23 juggernaut trundled up to Thing 18, Zotero, this week, I was sorely tempted not to get off and to carry on to Thing 19 instead – a bit like avoiding Bridgwater services (right) on the M5 and carrying on to Exeter.

My main reason for feeling anti-Zotero is that it was seized upon by a business school PhD student last year as the answer to life, the universe and everything. Now this would have been fine had it not been for the fact that he was holding forth (extensively) in an Endnote teaching session we were giving. His speech and his later extra-classroom evangelism led to zero Endnote take-up, kyboshing the careful efforts we had made to arrange  full Endnote access for any PhD who wanted it. And after all that, the student in question didn’t even have the decency to pass his first year, so many PhDs were left rudderless as it were. Or so I thought…

However, now I’ve had a good look around for myself and am being more rational about it, I can see the advantages it has over Endnote and that our PhDs were probably very pleased to have been pointed in its direction. Its less clunky, more intuitive and, most importantly, more seamlessly integrated with the web than Endnote.

I especially  like the ease of just clicking the folder icon in the URL bar and selecting which results you want to add to your ‘library’. (Above: a selection of results I opted to add from EBSCO’s Business Source Complete).

However, my experience wasn’t entirely trouble-free. Several databases I tried to import from resulted in a ‘cannot save item’ message and there were many databases, here at the business school, that were unfortunately incompatible. Having said that, it would be unfair to discount Zotero on this basis as Endnote connection/database link shenanigans are legendary in their complexity. I guess where Endnote still has the edge is in its robustness, Zotero is merely a Firefox plug-in after all. I know if I was writing a PhD thesis that I’d be mighty scared about the safety of a bibliography saved within a Firefox profile and would want the peace of mind that an Endnote database saved to a hard drive would give me. Fine for an essay then, or maybe a Master’s dissertation, but I’m still dubious about its use by PhDs.

My other problem with Zotero it is that it’s a bit too easy to use (!) therefore feeding the questionable idea that the research process should be easy and achievable in a few clicks. While I can see that there’s no point in deliberately making things complicated there is a feel of ‘the march of low culture’ about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps its just that “it used to be much harder in my day” thing. When I hear complaints from students about Endnote (and indeed any database) I can’t help but think back to the shonky tools at my disposal when I was studying and think therefore that they are whining unnecessarily.  So ‘dinosaurish me’ sees Zotero as dumbing down, and ‘forward-thinking enthusiastic me’ embraces it as wonderfully web-integrated and functional.

One final word, Zoh-TAIR-oh? Really? Are you sure? You’ll be wanting Pimms and cucumber sandwiches with that then?

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6 thoughts on “You say zoh-TAIR-oh, I say zoh-TEER-oh…

  1. Bruce says:

    Since you’re a librarian with presumably some influence, I feel the need to challenge you on a couple of points.

    First, you say that you have a vague hunch that Endnote wins on “robustness” without providing any evidence either that Endnote is in fact “robust” (my experience in the 1990s was that it definitely was not; I stopped using the product as a result of that experience), or that Zotero isn’t.

    In addition, you use incomplete or baldly incorrect information to make this assertion. You say, for example, that “I’d be mighty scared about the safety of a bibliography saved within a Firefox profile.” First, why; the data is stored in a SQL database, just as it presumably is in Endnote? So what difference does it make if it’s a profile directory? More importantly, Zotero also syncs that data to online servers.

    Finally, on your point about it being “too easy”; I really hope you don’t bring this sort of attitude to the patrons you serve. I help train graduate students in research: I absolutely want them to do the hard bibliographic work involved in tracking down sources, tracing literatures, etc. But I cannot see why there’s any value at all in making the mind-numbing donkey work of jotting down bibliographic information and creating formatted citations difficult.

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    1. libreaction says:

      Hi Bruce,

      Thanks for your comments.

      First up, just to reassure you that I and the rest of my team have a very good rep here at the business school as both helfpul and intent on making the lives of students manageable in terms of library and information support. Our recent student survey results were phenomenally good in fact.

      I agree about the mind-numbing journey – I was being a bit playful there. What I was really referring to wasn’t unnecessarily painstaking reference taking, but rather the more generic laziness that I have observed amongst SOME students borne of conducting basic one-word keyword searches on Google and little more. Or having a bit of a mess around in our databases for 5 minutes before announcing that all of our premium content databases are rubbish and they’re going back to trusty Google. i’m not talking about PhD level here.

      As to the Zotero specifics, the problem with this Cam23 programme is that you do end up blogging about things of which you don’t necessarily have enough knowledge or experience – that is why it was indeed a hunch I had about Endnote (in comparison) rather than empirical fact. Although I would say it is my experience that it is more robust than it was in the 90s. You clearly have more experience and knowledge of Zotero and I bow to that on those technical details. Very useful to set the record straight for readers by way of your comment.

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  2. Sebastian says:

    I’m currently finishing my PhD thesis using Zotero (so far without any incidents).
    I can’t help ‘dinosaur you’, of course, (though my take on this would be that actually doing research is hard enough, so that organizing it and citing correcly should be as easy as possible), but some of your other concerns:

    You don’t need to have your Zotero data in a Firefox profile. For most users it is probably a good idea to change the storage location to a folder outside of Firefox, which is very easy to do:
    http://www.zotero.org/support/preferences/advanced
    If you do regular back-ups of your hard-disk – which you should anyway – your Zotero data will be backed up as well.
    In addition, the ability to sync your data to the clouds with one click gives you an additional layer of security.

    About databases: In addition to the easy import using the URL bar icon, Zotero can also automatically import data from any database with an “Export to Endnote” function. You just need to check the appropriate box in the preferences:
    http://www.zotero.org/support/preferences/general
    (Use Zotero for downloaded RIS/Refer files)

    I think one other concern about Endnote is that they’re not just clumsy, they’re also behaving like the cliché of a big, bad, bullying corporation:
    http://arstechnica.com/web/news/2009/06/thomson-reuters-suit-against-zotero-software-dismissed.ars

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    1. libreaction says:

      Thanks Sebastian – some useful information and links there. I completely agree that the referencing process should be as easy as it can be – see my response to Bruce above. And interesting background on Endnote in terms of company background – wasn’t aware of that.

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  3. Jen says:

    Hi libreaction,

    Thanks for your thoughtful opinions on this topic. I’m one of the product managers for EndNote and thought it might be helpful for me to interject a little bit.

    Needless to say, I hear from a lot of people with similar views. Since you’re doing trainings on EndNote, I’ll assume you’re familiar with the current product enough to judge for yourself how substantial and robust you think it is. On a feature by feature basis I’m sure all products have their strengths and weaknesses, and that’s what I get out of your post. Here, we’re always working to try and solve problems people have with research and reference management, both new and old. It’s imperative that we provide strong bibliographic formatting, as that’s what people rely on us for, but we’re also concerned with making things easier all around. EndNote Web for example, helps with online integration, can also save from web pages and import RIS files easily, etc., etc.

    I don’t think most people are as close to the intricacies of reference management solutions as I am. It’s nice to back away and see how librarians like yourself see the situation.

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