A few weeks back, I came across a review of Zotero. In the context of this very positive review, I came across the following comment:
For Scott, who is not affiliated with an academic institution, Zotero makes a lot of sense because itâ€™s free.
But many IHE readers are affiliated with a college or university. Those folks may want to find out if their library has RefWorks. Itâ€™s available free of charge to anyone at the institution â€” and if you ever leave you can take all of your citations with you.
I wonâ€™t turn this comment into an ad for Refworks, which to my way of thinking, does all that Zotero does and more (for example, integrating your citations from your personal database directly into your word documents in any of dozens of citation formats â€” and with RefShare â€” scholars or students in a class can start to share their references ). Iâ€™ll just suggest that like many other great library resources that are made available to the campus community, faculty should not overlook them â€” and they should be advocates for encouraging their students to use them as well.
What struck me as odd is that this was not, as I first suspected, a post from a RefWorks representative. That would make some sense. Rather it was from one Steven Bell, who lists himself as “associate university librarian at temple u.” Hmmm …
In a followup, I proceeded to point out some factual errors and differences of opinion on the content of Steven’s comment. I also challenged libraries for spending large licensing fees for what is an inferior product when even a portion of those fees could be directed to Zotero. As I wrote:
Universities spend a lot of money for those licenses. Imagine if instead they invested in truly free solutions like Zotero (which I personally believe is superior to RefWorks in virtually every way; the only exception currently being the lack of server support)?
I then came across an even more bizarre comment from one H. Stephen McMinn:
I was going to enter the comment area and reply to the potential pros and cons of various bibliographic management software, but the level of discourse has discouraged me from even considering it. Zotero has some fine features which other bibliographic management software packages donâ€™t but it also doesnâ€™t have the functionality of others. I really donâ€™t see the need to blast someone because he stated something is free when it is in fact subsidized by the university so it appears free to university community. Canâ€™t we all get along?
Huh? So I was curious: is this another librarian sensitive to critique of vendor products? Well, it turns out, apparently yes!
So I’m just left scratching my head at this. Why on earth would librarians be defending costly, limited and closed solutions and subtly digging a project that is arguably better, certainly free, and developed by a group of scholars? It made no sense!
But I just came across another post that helps clarify what I would call the dysfunctional organizational politics of these positions. In Zotero proselytizing, a library information sciences student observes the following:
I donâ€™t talk about Zotero too much at work because we subscribe to, and are busy promoting- RefWorks. I feel sorta like a traitor. But in my own research, Zotero has been an absolute godsend. I truly believe students are better off using Zotero, because they can store, annotate, and, if they install on a portable version of Firefox as I have, take their database anywhere, even places without an internet connection. Not to mention, when they graduate, they can take all their research with them and not have to pay $100 a year.
Ah ha! This starts to give some insight. Sounds a little like what I imagine CIA employees skeptical of the “slam dunk” intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs must have felt like before the invasion!
I know from talking to library IT people that most are really psyched about Zotero. Many of them promote Zotero on their blogs, or use it for their own research, and some even hack on it. And clearly library people get the useful innovations that Zotero brings to their users.
But what about this business of feeling like “a traitor” for not promoting the party line proprietary solution? It’s really a shame, since it seems that the only thing this student is betraying in promoting Zotero is a rather narrow-minded organizational group think; not their end users.
Aside: it occurs to me that when I use the term “free” in these contexts it may be a little unclear exactly what I mean. I mean it in the free as in free speech tradition; not simply that it is cost-free.
I don’t think many people realize how crucial bibliographic data is to a scholar. A rather intense frustration can result from feeling that such crucial data is locked-in to closed products that have a history of glacial innovation. A lot of my interest in data and metadata modeling really comes from having been unable to represent a lot of my data in applications like Endnote and RefWorks, and not having any faith its developers would improve their applications to accommodate my needs. With Zotero, by contrast, I know people like Dan Cohen have gone through similar frustrations, and that they will always strive to create a better tool regardless of market considerations. I am also confident that whatever work I directly or indirectly put into Zotero will have positive impacts beyond Zotero.