Zotero and Open Access

2 minute read

Before the excitement surrounding last month’s Open Access Week fades completely — too late — I thought it might be appropriate to describe how and where Zotero intersects with OA. When people talk about Open Access, they typically mean free access to published, usually scholarly, content. It’s a concept that’s ideologically easy for most researchers to get behind because few of us reap any direct financial benefit from the majority of our publications, and we’re all very familiar with the annoying frictions introduced by gating access to content. Championing Open Access is kind of like advocating not clubbing baby seals: you’re unlikely to encounter much opposition.

Publishers, of course, are always the villains in this narrative. They seek unseemly profits gained off the sweat of academics’ brows. Their outdated practices of peer review inhibit research. Without their meddling, scientific discoveries would just fall into our laps. Humanity quite simply would be better off without these monstrous institutions. Again, these are easy charges to make since most of us are not publishing houses. But how does Open Access relate to middlemen like Zotero?

In the four years since launching Zotero, we haven’t done much to link the project explicitly to Open Access because, quite frankly, it tends to become a sideshow that distracts from the key issues at stake in the space surrounding research software. That said, Open Access, or rather its general absence, is largely responsible for shaping Zotero’s architecture. Zotero as a research platform was designed primarily in order to shield users from distinction between gated and open resources, in the sense that Zotero’s site translator architecture easily (and uniquely) grabs content from either type of content. Once in a Zotero library, this content can then be easily shared with colleagues, collaborators, and students.

Zotero has also always been fully committed to openness from the perspective of a provider of content, not just a consuming platform. We don’t place any restrictions on how users employ their data — after all it belongs to them — programmatically or otherwise. We don’t “license” content derived from the use of the Zotero API because really, that would be crazy. Likewise, if you pull items from the Zotero API, we don’t ask for you to give us credit. Should you make use of Zotero’s API to embed your Zotero CV or a Zotero collection, we don’t expect you to credit us by displaying our attribution graphic. And why would we? You created the content, not us.

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