Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Virtual Personal Assistant for Researchers and Writers

In my never ending quest to be more organized and keep track of little snippets of information that might be useful, well…sometime…I came across a couple of helpful tools worthy of sharing.

First is Zotero. Great application, and easy enough even for determinedly non-techie types to learn. I was attracted to try Zotero by its pedigree—the project is produced by Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. They provide Zotero as a free program, which is installed onto Firefox. When you see a page you want to save while you are browsing, you can hit the friendly little Z icon. A screen will pop-up in the lower part of your open Firefox page, and you can take a snapshot of the page or just save the link. There are a number of very easy to follow screencast tutorials that illustrate different aspects of saving or searching, but much of Zotero is self-explanatory.

For me (and other OCD researchers, I suspect), one of the best parts of the Zotero program is that it automatically captures citation information from the web pages or papers. This tool is invaluable and would have saved me countless hours and angst when I was trying to verify all of my references for my book, Conducting Clinical Research, just prior to going to press.

Other great features of Zotero are that:
-You can save pretty much any type of article or file—newspaper clippings, images, pdfs, web pages, and word files. You can then link these to files or pdfs and tag them. Zotero’s search feature has jogged my memory accurately, thus far. I don’t know if that will change as I add a zillion more references, or if the program will choke; I suspect it is tougher than I am.

-You can make linked or standalone notes. I like to jot down “factoids” but sometimes have trouble remembering which articles they were associated with. Now I can more easily link the two together in an easily searchable database.

-You can readily mark up or annotate your pdfs for later reference.

-Rumor has it that you can integrate Zotero with word processing programs. I haven’t tried yet. Nor have I tried accessing my files in cyberspace.

-You can also work with Zotero off-line.

-Zotero is open-source, a goal worthy of support.

What’s not to like? Not much, so far.

-I don’t like the way it identifies folders, as you can’t tell what is in them readily.
-When it takes a snapshot of a page, I wish it would discard a lot of the images or advertising on a web page and save space, but it hasn’t learned that skill yet. Zotero stored my files in a peculiar path, which made backing up my files like a scavenger hunt at first.

I’m sure there are other features I’ll learn to love. If a little elf came with Zotero and would go back through all the other folders on my hard drive’s files and import them into Zotero, along with suitable tags, I would commit to Zotero for life.

Zotero is a great little program that should save considerable time and angst by helping to collect, manage, and accurately cite references in writing any type of article. It really is almost like having a personal research assistant, only a lot less expensive. Let me know what you think!