Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Extending Zotero for Collaborative Work

In an earlier post I reviewed the forthcoming open-source Firefox extension Zotero. In brief, Zotero is able to automatically extract citation information from a web page that you are browsing and store it in a database. It also lets you organize and search through your research notes and do a number of other useful things. Since it is open source, users are free to develop the software and add new features. In my review I suggested a few features that could be added, such as support for RSS feed aggregation and spidering / text mining within the browser.

Here I'd like to speculate a little bit more about the kinds of things that Zotero could be used for, this time concentrating on scholarly collaboration. In the version that I reviewed, Zotero stores citation information in a local SQLite database. It also allows you to import and export information in a variety of XML-based standard forms. Putting these two features together, it should be straightforward to send XML records over the web so that they could be stored in a nonlocal SQL database. Imagine, then, that in the Zotero collections panel you could have nonlocal folders that were automatically synchronized to shared external databases. You could subscribe to a bibliographic community with a particular interest and receive citations to sources as well as contribute your own. Such communities might form around a particular project (e.g., the references to be cited in an edited volume or jointly-authored textbook) or around a particular event (e.g., Hurricane Katrina) or an emerging research field (e.g., digital history). Since Zotero also allows you to work with research notes, PDFs, images, and other kinds of files it would be possible to synchronize most of the files associated with a particular project amongst collaborators. It would also be easy to flag information that a particular user had already seen, so that new items could be visually coded to draw attention. (In the Sage RSS feed aggregator, for example, feeds that haven't been updated are in normal font and those with new information are in boldface.)

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