September 5, 2006 / A new Firefox plugin is about to be released into the wild that may soon have researchers, students and librarians everywhere wondering how they ever did without it. It’s called Zotero and it looks set to do for everyone’s favourite web browser what EndNote did for their personal computer seven years ago.

A new Firefox plugin is about to be released into the wild that may soon have researchers, students and librarians everywhere wondering how they ever did without it. It’s called Zotero and it looks set to do for everyone’s favourite web browser what EndNote did for their personal computer seven years ago. Zotero scans the web pages you browse for bibliographic information, and stores this data automatically in a browser-accessible database. This means that you can do a library search through your university web site, or a reference search through a subject database, or a book search on Amazon.com and have your browser store the full citation results in a form that can be exported directly to your Word document, text file or blog. Zotero also lets you annotate its database entries with images, saved (local) web pages, notes and PDFs — that’s right: the entire article.

If implemented as well as its web site promises, Zotero should leapfrog EndNote in total functionality, and allow the user to remain entirely within the browser while conducting research. This should cut down the minimum number of applications that previous users of citation management software have to juggle from three to two (browser and word processor/text editor). At the system level the implication is that Firefox, rather than your file system, will be your primary means of accessing everything on your computer about a given research topic. Oh, and being a Firefox tool, it’s free. (You’ve gotta love open source.) According to lead developer Dan Cohen, the public beta will be available by the end of the month.

But my favourite part of all this is a small section at the bottom of Zotero’s Supported Sites page:

Zotero should work on sites that use these standards and technologies:

  • Embedded RDF
  • COinS
  • (many more to come)

Please explain? This snippet indicates that Zotero has also been designed to grab citation information directly from standardised HTML source (rather than having to make database calls or use proprietary encoding formats). This is very good news for the web accessibility and standards movements because it should promote the deployment of open standards such as RDFa and citation microformats for academic resources. The potential advantage of such frameworks is that they make web browsers more intelligent: instead of passing random bits of information in the form of text (forcing the user to separate a reference from a legal statement from an advertisement), they offer up practical objects such as citations, calendar events, address book entries or software licenses. Such efforts should provide researchers with a vastly simplified workflow: instead of cutting-and-pasting text from your browser into your word processor (or citation manager), your browser automatically imports a discrete data object. Translation: simply by finding the citation on the web you’ve already included it in your database and, with a few clicks, your word processor.

Anyway, that’s enough speculation on the road ahead. At present the hard data is this: Zotero for Firefox is coming in less than a month. So watch this space.

Via Nick Caldwell.

11 responses

  1. Bruce

    Actually, Endnote is much older than the version ISI first released. It was in general a better (relative) product before ISI bought it from its original developer (Niles Software). It was probably first released in the very early 1990s.

    And yes, I think it’s fair to say that Zotero and similar developments will totally eclipse applications like Endnote in fairly short time.

    September 5th, 2006 at 3:14 pm #

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    Thanks Bruce. I looked for information on EndNote’s origins but was unable to find anything. What was better about it when it was owned by Niles? Do you think it was ultimately crippled by feature creep under ISI/Thomson?

    And yes, I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what Zotero can do.

    September 5th, 2006 at 3:27 pm #

  3. Bruce

    It was a dedicated Mac product, produced and maintained by a company that seemed to care about doing right by its users. So it was a relatively stable application, where as I recall new releases had new features that were worth paying for.

    My impression is that ISI sees the product as nothing but a cash cow. How else to explain the contemptible practice of their yearly $100 bug fix? Last I checked, it seems the product has become more buggy and less interesting.

    I gave up Endnote in disgust years ago after beta testing the first Mac OS X version (and among other things having a product manager tell me when I complained to “use another product if you don’t like Endnote”!) in search of better open source solutions. When I didn’t find them, I started working on finding out how to create them.

    Zotero is sort of the first example of this in that while I was not involved directly in the development, they are using the new XML Citation Style Language I developed (mostly to use in OpenOffice) to replace the proprietary binary styles in applications like Endnote.

    I think the combination of open source and open standards is likely to mean the end of products like Endnote in the medium run, and I say good riddance. We’ll have better products, and greater freedom of choice.

    It’ll just take a little time as projects like Zotero and the OpenOffice bibliographic project ramp up. This is a complicated problem to fix, since it touches on a lot of areas (date, document formats, styling, etc.).

    September 6th, 2006 at 10:02 am #

  4. Bruce

    Oh, and I also think there’s a great opportunity for Zotero to ramp a lot of good data onto the web outside the control of the journal publishers and such. Scholarship is a perfect use case for the semantic web.

    September 6th, 2006 at 10:08 am #

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    Great discussion, thanks. I was first introduced to EndNote as an college student in the late 1990s. I appreciated the concept but found having a separate application for reference management to be more of a burden than a boon since I used my computer’s file system (and my physical file system) as the primary means of keeping track of materials. For me EndNote never really went beyond the promise of what such a program could do. The Zotero vision has an edge, in my opinion, because (1) it seems to be designed with an eye to the workflows that people actually use (browser » word processor » browser, etc.), (2) because it’s open source (especially being a Firefox extension), and (3) — as you said — because it’s open standards.

    September 7th, 2006 at 3:14 am #

  6. William J. Turkel

    Zotero actually does find embedded citation information on webpages automatically … there is more information in a review of the prerelease beta on my blog.

    September 9th, 2006 at 7:49 am #

  7. Ken

    I must say, I’m perplexed. While the prospect of developing open citation standards is intriguing, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be integrated into the Endnote platform, as well. EN currently offers far more functionality to users, especially when used in combination with the EN Firefox extension. I suspect those who disagree really aren’t very familiar with the program, or have very distant memories of the earlier versions. I have looked at each public version of Zotero as it’s been released, and can’t find anything it does that Endnote doesn’t do better. Of course, I understand that it’s not free, but US$80 is really very little for the functionality – and adaptability – it offers.

    March 5th, 2007 at 3:30 pm #

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