Posts Tagged ‘Zotero’

The Times biology columnist Olivia Judson has an interesting personal account this week of her experiences trying to manage her research electronically using Zotero (you can see my take on Zotero on the “Tech of Diss” tab), along with a Mac program called Papers intended to organize PDFs of downloaded scientific papers and journal articles sort of like iTunes.

I can’t speak from personal experience about Papers — and, frankly, I don’t find it that difficult to rename PDFs from the meaningless string of letters and numbers that comes up as the default file name to something more meaningful. I’m not inclined to spend forty bucks for a program that remains imperfect, especially since it’s geared toward scientists. Granted, it probably works reasonably well for scholars in non-scientific disciplines, but it might be a bit more of a chore if it was written with scientific researchers in mind, as opposed to historians or scholars in the humanities. Moreover, I think Zotero (or probably its commercial counterpart EndNote) offers a lot of the same features of Pages, if not the specific functionality, since Zotero allows you to tag articles with bibliographical information, abstracts, personal notes, and even links to the actual file (whether the format is PDF, image or document).

Of course, I think Judson’s recollections of the “old” ways of doing research (before journals and other repositories of knowledge went largely digital) suggests one of the advantages of being relatively young, since the internet and electronic databases have always been a part of my academic career. Consequently, I don’t think I really get the sense of feeling “lost” that Judson describes for her and her colleagues. I just take it for granted, for the most part, that I can get the information (and often the actual sources) from my laptop, no matter where in the world I happen to be. It really is empowering, since it made it possible for me to get a lot of dissertation work done while I was abroad, and having my dissertation research almost entirely digitized (save for a few photocopies but also all those pesky books that still aren’t, for the most part, available electronically in a full-text format). Indeed, I’ve managed to write probably close to eighty pages away from home in the past month, since I have (almost) everything on my laptop, and this is in addition to the first seventy-three pages of dissertation I wrote holed up in our flat in Prague over the summer.

The upshot is that I also know well how important it is to organize new sources and downloaded articles are I obtain them, so I know to rename PDFs with a more descriptive file name, to create hierarchies of folders with PDFs on my hard drive, and to make notes on my computer of what’s important for each source. It’s unavoidable that I have to read through my notes every time I come back to my sources cold, but I don’t have to go to the trouble of “re-researching” and downloading the same articles all over again the way Judson does.

(An aside: Many times I’ve wondered what it must have been like for academic types like myself to have searched for books, articles and other materials in the days before that information was catalogued electronically. The concept of the card catalog isn’t completely foreign to me, since we had card catalogs in our elementary and junior high school libraries. But I was never very skilled at using those to find sources, and it was still moot because I could always go to the public library and use its electronic catalog to find sources. Of course, I also have a fair sense of the experience of having to go to a bricks-and-mortar library to get information from all the hours I’ve spent reading forty-year-old newspapers on crappy microfilm readers, or thumbing through the yellowing, brittle pages of the actual newspapers, and having to spend hours sifting through finding aids in foreign archives because they haven’t digitized their complete catalogs.)

On the other hand, I definitely agree with Judson’s characterization of Zotero as “a bit buggy.” While Zotero is a powerful tool and has made my life a lot easier in terms of trying to organize and manage 1,200 or so sources with all my notes on them, it’s not quite all it could be. For one thing, I still have to input bibliographic information manually, save for the occasional book or article I can find in a library catalog (and since relatively few of my sources fit that description, I usually just add the citation info for those manually as well, since it takes less time than it would to fire up the library catalog, find the material, and extract and import the data into Zotero). Then there’s the problem of it lacking customizable reference fields. There’s the single field for “Location in archive,” which takes a sort of “one size fits all” approach to archival materials. It’d be a lot easier on me if I could just create fields for “fond,” “carton,” “bundle,” “folder,” “folio” and so forth. The various archival collections I used don’t used a standardized format for locating individual documents, or even the same system, which makes the approach of one size fits all used in Zotero less than optimal for my purposes. Consequently, I’ve opted not to use Zotero to create my actual footnotes, even though in theory it’s fully compatible with Word and should make my citations a lot easier. That might be the case in theory, but it practice I have to tailor my citations to the organization system used for that particular archival collection, and since Zotero can’t do that for me (at least not in an easy, obvious manner), I find, yet again, it’s easier just to do it my hand.

Really, there’s still a lot of ground out there for reference management software to cover. I suppose any program is going to have its shortcomings, unless you have the chops as a programmer to create your own software customized for your needs (or can tailor an open-source application like Zotero to fit those needs). Since I don’t, and don’t think it’s a productive use of my time to learn how to write my own software, I remain at the mercy of others.

Then again, plenty of scholars wrote dissertations, articles and books without benefit of a computer, let alone electronic reference management software and online catalogs. So, we’re still ahead of the game, living in this modern era.


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Today I finally got around to doing what I had planned to do yesterday: read through my freshly completed first draft of the introductory chapter (of “fiery” thesis fame) to see if the style and organization hold up. And, thankfully, they do. I kind of winged it when it came to the structure.

Initially, my outline listed the sections as follows:

  • Introductory anecdote
  • What was the Slovak question?
  • Why Slovakia? Why the sixties?
  • Historiography
  • Objectives
  • Argument
  • Methodology

Crude, I know. But it worked, at least for figuring out the components of the chapter, and grouping the relevant ideas in the right places.

Now, here’s how it turned out after I changed things on the fly while writing:

  • untitled introductory section (7.5 pages)
  • The Slovak Question (4.5 pages)
  • Why Slovakia? (8.5 pages)
  • The Case for the Slovak Question (6.5 pages)

In other words, I went from seven subsections to four, which was predictable (I really didn’t want to title sections “Historiography” and “Methodology,” since those would’ve been cues to readers not on my committee that they should just skip those parts), and it’s also more satisfying, since I’m of the school that you shouldn’t over-compartmentalize in academic writing. At least, not if you want to maintain something resembling narrative flow.

How’d I drill it down from seven sections to four? Well, I kept the first three sections (the introduction, a historical primer on the Slovak question, and a section on why Slovakia was important in the sixties). But I folded the historiography into the section “Why Slovakia?” It fit pretty well, since my big historiographical critique of the existing literature boils down to “nobody has really looked at Slovakia in this period.” And that also made it a good space to stash the historiography so I could get it out of the way in the least obtrusive way possible. (I’m sorry, but I come across plenty of polemics from my own research, so I have little interest in participating in my own. Plus, I don’t really have anyone to polemicize with, given that this is a nice-sized niche all to myself.)

Then, I basically merged the objectives, argument and methodology into the section titled “The Case for the Slovak Question.” I kind of alluded to the objectives earlier, at the end of the introductory section, the end of the section introducing the Slovak question, and the end of the “Why Slovakia?” section. Trust me, it’s not so repetitive as it sounds. I managed to sort of build up in different pieces what I want this dissertation to accomplish. And then when I got to “The Case for the Slovak Question,” I elaborated on the objectives and some of the specific things I wanted to do. That provided a nifty segue into my argument, and I buried the note on methodology at the end, since it had to go somewhere, and that was a convenient place to stick it for anyone who isn’t interested and wants to skip ahead. Voila! I know have twenty-seven-plus pages of dissertation.

And keeping with the theme of getting things accomplished on it, I spent a few hours this evening amassing my bibliography. Essentially, I looked through all the papers with any slight connection to my dissertation that I’ve written dating to my first quarter of graduate school. (It helps that my historiographical essay from that quarter, plus both seminar papers and the article I just sent off all pertain to my dissertation topic, which was by design.) Then I poached those bibliographies, and added in the sources I’ve compiled in my Zotero database. Probably there’s a better way to create a bibliography (or cite references) using Zotero (that’s what it’s for, after all), but I’ve alluded (see the Zotero section under Tech of Diss, which I should probably update at some point)┬áto my dissatisfaction with Zotero’s overly pithy list of fields for documents, so I’ve just decided to damn the torpedos and do my footnoting the old-fashioned way. Sure, it’s a bit of a chore doing it manually, and I may start kicking myself if I begin to move around chunks of my dissertation using cut and paste. But I’ve always managed to do it manually before, so I’ll survive.

Anyway, if we count the introduction plus the bibliography, I have 34 pages of dissertation at the moment. And that ain’t not half bad.

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