I got my library a trial of RefWorks this summer (with the way our distance learners do school work — often at home and work — it makes much more sense for us to make a Web-based citation manager available to them), but it didn’t really meet with an enthusiastic response by the students and faculty we consulted. And my colleagues found it confusing to use and weren’t really keen on supporting the product. Right now I don’t really know what students are using to organize their research, if anything. For doing APA and MLA citations, we usually recommend Citation Machine, but that’s far from an all-encompasing tool for organizing research. From observing students at the library, my guess is that they’re just printing the resources out, muddling through creating citations and that’s it.

Enter Zotero (thanks Lorcan for bringing it to our attention!). Originally called Firefox Scholar, Zotero is billed as a “next generation research tool.” Here are some of the features:

  • captures citation information you want from a web page automatically, without typing or cutting and pasting on your part, and saves this information directly into the correct fields (e.g., author, title, etc.) of your Zotero library
  • lets you store—beyond citations—PDFs, files, images, links, and whole web pages
  • allows you to easily take notes on the research materials you capture
  • makes it easy to organize your research materials in multiple ways, such as folders, saved searches (smart folders), and tags
  • offers fast, as-you-type search through your materials so that you can quickly find that source that you only vaguely remember
  • lets you export formatted citations to your paper, article, book, or website
  • has an easy-to-use, modern interface that simplifies all of your research tasks, with “where has that been?” features such as autosaving your notes as you type
  • runs right in your web browser and is a platform for new forms of digital research that can be extended with other web tools and services
  • is free and open source

Check out that interface… look familiar? What’s really important is that it will look familiar to your students. RefWorks isn’t too difficult to learn in my opinion, but it’s definitely different from anything else I’ve used and required me to really learn it. This looks like it might be a lot more intuitive. The RefWorks rep actually gave me guff when I told him that my colleagues had trouble using RefWorks, but come on… their tutorial is incredibly long and there is no way to know how to do a lot of the stuff in RefWorks without watching it. Here’s a tip: students don’t want to spend 20-30 minutes watching a screencast tutorial before they can use a Web application. Their expectations are just a bit higher than that (and rightly so).

Sounds pretty perfect, eh? Its achilles heel is that it’s Firefox only. It’s funny, at my school, most students use Firefox, while most faculty and staff use IE or [gasp!] Netscape, so it’ll be the older folks who would have trouble adopting this at Norwich (then again, you couldn’t pry Endnote out of most of our faculty members’ hands). If it gets people to switch to Firefox, which doesn’t seem like that big a deal to do in most settings, it’s a good thing. 🙂

The way we do research has changed so much, but I just don’t think the research management tools have really kept pace. It’s nice to see that people are actually working to develop tools that are designed to be integrated into our online life rather than requiring us to totally change the way we do things. It sounds like Dan Cohen and his colleagues are really interested in making this a flexible tool that works well with other online tools and meets the needs of its user population.

This is one I really can’t wait to get my hands on!