July 09, 2008
In this series of articles, Kevin D. Franklin and Karen Rodriguez'G examine computational tools and approaches at the interface of humanities, arts and social science.
Zotero: The Next Generation Research Tool
In the world of the academic researcher, how to gather, organize and recall your data has been an issue for as long as there's, well, been academic researchers. The picture of the wild-haired professor surrounded by boxes and boxes of note cards, representing years of research for his or her next monograph, is fast going the way of the dinosaur. Not the professor, but the data cataloging system.
Instead, savvy faculty, college students, lawyers, librarians, and anyone who collects and uses references are realizing the benefits of using Zotero, an innovative research collection, management and citation system. Zotero's motto -- "research not re-search"
Daniel Cohen, a history professor at George Mason and director of CHNM, and an inaugural recipient of the American Council of Learned Societies' Digital Innovations Fellowship, is one of Zotero's developers and directors. Dr. Cohen regularly writes and teaches on the future of practicing history in a digital age, including his graduate course "Clio Wired; The Theory and Practice of Digital History," and his co-authorship of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web. The following is an interview with Dr. Cohen about the birth and future of Zotero.
What is the origin of Zotero?
Cohen: Zotero is the result of many years of thinking about the research process in a digital age at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Two forerunners of the tool at CHNM are Scribe, a free Endnote replacement created by Elena Razlogova, and Web Scrapbook, a Web application that I initially coded. Scribe managed citations and notes well; Web Scrapbook did a good job taking snapshots of Web pages, grabbing texts and images from the Web, and managing links. We were thinking of upgrading both tools a few years ago, and thought it might not be a bad idea to combine them.
Indeed, we realized, like so many others, that the Web browser had become the location for research, so it no longer made sense to have a research tool exist as a separate application, as Scribe and EndNote did; at the same time, Web Scrapbook had limitations, such as a very poor metadata schema and the necessity that a researcher log into our Web site to access their research. We also wanted something that felt like a Web application but worked offline -- say, when a historian was in an archive without wifi. In short, we wanted the best of both worlds: the best parts of client applications and Web applications.
So we envisioned a tool that lived in the browser and that was very smart about what was going on in the browser, including the recognition of scholarly metadata and objects, and that could interact with elements not only in the browser but on the desktop, such as word processors or other client-based programs, and via APIs to basic Web services and even high-performance computing services in the future. When I saw the very early versions of Firefox and recognized the power of the Mozilla extension framework to enable all of these features, the project came together.
How did you get involved in this area or research?
Cohen: I have no formal training in computer science. Indeed, I have a very traditional Ph.D. in history. However, I've been informally hacking at computers since the TRS-80 and have enough technical literacy and programming knowledge that I can speak cogently with the incredibly talented Zotero developer team, led by Dan Stillman. The co-director of the Zotero project, Sean Takats, is also a historian with extensive technical skills.
I've been at the Center for History and New Media since 2001, and initially worked on a history of science Web site called ECHO (echo.gmu.edu), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Out of that project came a need to build tools to help other historians of science, which in turn led to projects like the Web Scrapbook and ultimately Zotero.
How is this innovative in computing?
Cohen: I believe Zotero is innovative in several ways. It uses Semantic Web principles in an utterly pragmatic and invisible fashion; indeed, the user experience is so seamless and the use of semantic metadata so inconspicuous that Zotero is often not mentioned in discussions of the next generation of the Web. It's often just considered an innovative citation manager.
But what I think we have done is tackled the problem of citation and research management in such a way that it creates enormous potential in the next phase of the project: the use of Zotero as a digital research platform and as a means for the networked exchange of semantic and computational information. Our Zotero Server, connected to the client, will enable all kinds of new collaboration opportunities and data-mining of aggregated collections. We also plan to provide hooks into high-performance computing projects like the SEASR text-mining project based at UIUC.
How does this project broaden/challenge/alter our understandings of humanities, arts, and social science research or education?
Cohen: One of the core principles of the Zotero project is that the main challenge scholars now face is what the founder of the Center for History and New Media, Roy Rosenzweig, called "the problem of abundance." The scholar who has access to the Internet increasingly faces almost unimaginably large corpora of digitized objects, and has no easy way to corral those objects or to subject them to analytical process -- unless the scholar is extremely savvy with technology. Zotero hopes to bring digital research -- from basic to advanced processes like HPC -- to the average scholar through its easy-to-use interface and its ability to communicate with software and services wherever they may be. By doing so, I suspect that Zotero will make scholars think twice about the validity of the "traditional" research process -- the way we have normally selected, read, analyzed and synthesized a relatively small number of texts, images or datasets.
What does this project offer the humanistic/scientific/technological/corporate world?
Cohen: The Zotero project comes out of our experience as historians and humanists, but we believe -- and over a million users agree -- that the same problem of abundance and digital management and analysis is faced by a broad array of people. Beyond the humanities and social sciences, we have a very active user community of lawyers; many of our early adopters were in the natural sciences, who knitted Zotero together with common tools like LaTeX; and we know of several projects to tailor Zotero for corporate intranets and knowledge management teams.
About the Authors
Kevin D. Franklin is the Executive Director of the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Science (ICHASS) and Senior Research Scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Karen Rodriguez'G is Public Relations Liaison for ICHASS and a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Founded in 2004 at UIUC, ICHASS charts new ground in high-performance computing and the humanities, arts, and social sciences by creating both learning environments and spaces for digital discovery. ICHASS presents path-breaking research, computational resources, collaborative tools, and educational programming to showcase the future of the humanities, arts, and social sciences by engaging visionary scholars from across the globe to demonstrate approaches that interface advanced interdisciplinary research with high-performance computing.
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