Entering Exeter

I’ve been to the University of Exeter today, giving a presentation about Zotero, which I’ve blogged about before, to a group of library and information professionals from Exeter and elsewhere in the South West. As ever with teaching and conferences, you learn as much as you provide, and through feedback and questions from the group, I discovered Mendeley, a more recent (and UK-based) citation software alternative which I will explore soon. It seems to have a very similar feature set to Zotero, and crucially has an iPhone app associated with it.

Here, mainly for the benefit of those who were at the presentation, but also for anyone else who’s interested, are some short videos demoing the specifics of Zotero (including some features I didn’t cover in the presentation).

Drag and drop in Firefox – Zotero to Google docs

Extracting metadata from a journal article

Live citations in MS Word using Zotero plugin

To see my Uncle Sam…

I’ve recently been researching musicians and neuroscience as part of my PhD in collaborative songwriting, and I’m starting to form the impression that the academics in the USA are a little freer with the copyright on their publications than many of their UK equivalents. Here’s an example from the Neurosciences Institute’s Aniruddh D. Patel. And here’s Laurence Parsons, a UK-based academic working in a similar area of research. Patel’s publications list has pdfs directly downloadable from the webpage with no login; Parsons’ page sends us to the usual gateways (JSTOR etc). This is not to compare the individuals, more the policies of openness relating to their respective institutions.

Anyway, this was just a quick example – I’ve ranted about the issues about copyright relating to academic journals in the Web 2.0 blog. The main point of today’s entry is to fly the flag for Zotero, an online research tool I’ve recently discovered in case any researcher academics stumble across this blog. I’ve been using Endnote (a commercial application costing over £100) and I wanted to find out if it would fulfil my own research needs, namely;

  • Storage of journal articles in The Cloud
  • Full text search of all documents
  • Drag and drop citation functionality using MS Word
  • Automatic web page indexing
  • Drag and drop citation functionality using Google docs

And I was amazed to discover that there’s a Firefox plugin that does all these things and more – outperforming Endnote (the application I’ve been using) and RefWorks (the one the University uses) and supplies 100MB of online storage. And it’s free!

Here’s their blurb;

Zotero is an easy-to-use yet powerful research tool that helps you gather, organize, and analyze sources (citations, full texts, web pages, images, and other objects), and lets you share the results of your research in a variety of ways. An extension to the popular open-source web browser Firefox, Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software (like EndNote) — the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references — and the best parts of modern software and web applications (like iTunes and del.icio.us), such as the ability to interact, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero integrates tightly with online resources; it can sense when users are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, and—on many major research and library sites—find and automatically save the full reference information for the item in the correct fields. Since it lives in the web browser, it can effortlessly transmit information to, and receive information from, other web services and applications; since it runs on one’s personal computer, it can also communicate with software running there (such as Microsoft Word). And it can be used offline as well (e.g., on a plane, in an archive without WiFi).

So here you go – check out Zotero. My bibliography-in-progress is online here.

Here’s a detailed comparison of several of the bibliographic applications available.

Dropbox and Zotero

All the previous posts have been discussions of the challenges and benefits of Web 2.0 tools in e-learning. In this one, I’m simply going to introduce a couple of useful tools (well, I’ve found them useful personally) with which fellow academics and students may not be familiar.


Dropbox is simply online storage for your files. You get 2GB (up to 3GB) of free storage space, which can be accessed from any computer. Its great strengths are;

  • Platform-neutral (OSX, Windows, mobiles)
  • Free
  • Background sync to Mac or PC
  • Usability (no login process – just invisible sync)
  • Mobile support (e.g. iPhone app)
  • Files or folders can be shared online

Dropbox duplicates some of the online storage functionality of Apple’s mobileme services (which is currently costing me $60 per year). I’m thinking seriously about letting my Apple subscription lapse next year – Dropbox is covering all my needs for the moment (and given the nice warm feeling generated by free services I won’t begrudge them the fee if/when I *do* need more storage). I’m two weeks in to using Dropbox – for me, it’s so far proved useful for;

  • Papers for academic meetings
  • Storing e-books for research
  • Sharing files with people without messing about with difficult login/authentication processes
  • An alternative to YouSendIt for sending large files

If you want to give it a try, simply go to dropbox.com and sign up for a free account.


I’m currently working toward my PhD (in collaborative songwriting – I’m working on this part time as a distance learning student at Surrey) and needed a way to achieve the following study goals;

  • ISBN/ISSN/DOI search for books and academic journals
  • Ability to bookmark and archive web pages with correct citation
  • Citation in MS Word
  • Cloud-based storage of pdfs (my life is spread over several Macs)
  • Full-text search of pdfs
  • Instant local access to files
  • No login/authentication to slow down the study process
  • Ability to read BibTEX/RefWorks/Endnote citation files
  • Support for all citation/bibliographical formats
  • Drag-and-drop compatibility with Google docs
  • Automatic creation of an online bibliography (to ease networking/discussion with other academics)

I was aware of two of the market leaders in reference management software – EndNote (which I bought in 2006) and RefWorks (as used by the University) but they didn’t provide the full text search or cloud-based storage I needed. And it struck me that other academics must have had this problem in the past – and I speculated that someone in the worldwide academic community would have found a solution.

So I simply Googled “free citation software” and one of the first results was Zotero. It’s a Firefox plugin that provides everything in my wish-list, including (on a free account) 100MB of pdf storage. So I’ve abandoned both of the other solutions and gone to a free Web 2.0 tool that actually provides *more* functionality than its pay-for equivalent. I’ve already found one academic colleague working in a related area at another University who wants to share bibliographies – imagine what this would do for global knowledge exchange if every researcher had an account…

Zotero links

And before you ask, yes I *have* thought about what happens to my studies if the Zotero site goes down. It’s not a problem, because there will still be a local copy of all the study materials on every computer I use, giving me time to find another solution, or import the bibliography and attachments into another citation manager.

Dropbox and Zotero are both examples of a ‘Freemium business model‘ – the basic service is free in both cases; you only pay if you want more storage than the minimum (3GB and 100MB respectively). It’s conceptually related to the Long Tail principle – which is that a large number of micro-sales add up to a large amount of income. I really hope both companies thrive – it’s great to see free products that combine outstanding usability and lots of useful features. And they’ve improved my productivity (now all I’ve got to do is that actual work!).