Zotero Versus

5 minute read

Brian Croxall recently lit up the comment feed at the Chronicle with his ProfHacker comparison of “Zotero vs. Endnote,” where the debate centered mostly around issues of citation fidelity. As Fred Gibbs notes, however, “while citation formatting is one major reason to use bibliographic software, it isn’t necessarily the only or even primary reason, especially in the humanities.” Zotero’s citation functionality was always imagined merely as bait: by providing this labor-saving functionality, Zotero would encourage each user to move her research into what amounted to a fully searchable and shareable relational database that could be subjected to text mining and other analysis. Here researchers could begin to do truly remarkable and new things with their evidence.

A few commenters, as well as Fred, tried to shift the discussion toward the issue of cost and openness, and in particular to Zotero’s status as free/libre open source software (FLOSS). Many of Zotero’s most dedicated users have championed the software in the name of FLOSS, but this line of argument frequently falls on deaf ears, or even ears that are conditioned to reject FLOSS as somehow anti-market or anti-capitalist. From my perspective, FLOSS in and of itself is a fairly unpersuasive argument for using Zotero, akin to knee-jerk calls to “Buy American!” in the 1980s, when the USA still did some manufacturing.

K car
Wikimedia Commons Credit: Stan Zurek

Buying American and using FLOSS might make one feel some sense of moral superiority, but at the end of the day can those feelings still paper over our sense of existential dread when faced with driving to work in our crumbling K-cars or cobbling together a dissertation with shitty research software?

Just as Zotero’s citation management functionality is a means to an end, so is licensing and developing the software as FLOSS. Far from just ideology, FLOSS has allowed Zotero to leverage relatively limited financial resources to outperform vastly larger and better funded competitors, old and new. Zotero’s annual operating overhead is only in the low six figures. This amount covers in-house development, outreach, and infrastructure costs. In comparison, EndNote and Mendeley each have operating costs that are an order of magnitude greater (or even more). And of course there’s an even higher, hidden cost for these platforms: the expectation of substantial profit, which necessarily impinges on sustainability.

Why should any researcher care about these issues? Defenders of Zotero have often voiced concerns about “lock-in” with proprietary, for-profit software. Users might find themselves unable to migrate their data out of one of these commercial solutions at some later date. But even if this worry were valid — and I don’t know that it is — lock-in in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Who would complain about being locked-in to the very best solution, particularly if that solution also didn’t cost any money?

Unfortunately, the closed, for-profit software option has never been the very best solution, and there’s no sign that that situation is changing. This isn’t ideology speaking; it’s history. EndNote has been derided for well over a decade for its 1990s interface and predatory “upgrade” cycles. New features come late or never, and the software has yet to embrace online research and collaboration. Mendeley, while far newer and theoretically nimbler, has likewise only slowly moved to provide the basic, core functionality that active, publishing researchers require. It’s entirely likely that “features” like journal abbreviations, citation page numbers, and subcollections will eventually make their way into Mendeley, or that EndNote will one day discover the internet, but the mere fact that these things haven’t yet transpired speaks volumes about the priorities of their parent corporations.

Because it’s FLOSS, Zotero has been able to add and refine features thanks to the contributions of hundreds of volunteer developers and the feedback of hundreds of thousands of users. The technological success of this model is undeniable: Zotero’s open-source citation engine, entirely rewritten by Zotero user Frank Bennett, and the thousands of user-contributed style files the engine uses have already been adopted by Mendeley and Papers, and a representative from XXXXX has expressed interest in doing the same.1 (Update: The individual who wrote regarding XXXXX and CSL clarifies that the communication was made in a personal capacity, not as a representative, and so I’ve removed the software’s name.)

Wikimedia Commons Credit: Stan Zurek

And of course, there is no reason to think that any of these parties is acting in the interest of serving ideological interests. Indeed, if we look at how they publicly address FLOSS, we find ambivalence and disdain. Mendeley only admitted its use of Zotero code when confronted, and avoided any mention of the provenance of its citation styles for years. Frank’s citation processing engine, despite saving countless hours of development and support, earns faint praise. Papers likewise initially only confessed its planned use of the citation styles when probed on Twitter.

Liberating researchers from the constraints of commercial software development has been good for research, not for ideological reasons but for technical ones. It has also been extremely good for commercial competitors, who recognize the value in openly developed software. What’s not at all clear is that attempting to put the genie back into this particular proprietary software bottle will sustain any of the remarkable momentum gained over the past few years, or whether innovation will continue to be stunted or stifled in pursuit of illusory financial gain.

Zotero's new look
Wikimedia Commons Credit: Finn Rindahl.

As commenters on Brian’s post noted, there is a real cost associated with moving between research software, and it’s inevitably in the interest of for-profit entities to keep those costs as high as possible. Right now the market won’t bear very high costs, but that’s largely thanks to Zotero, not because it’s free but because it’s FLOSS. EndNote, Mendeley, and the rest simply aren’t equivalent players, because the market that they’re squabbling over is checked in growth and in all likelihood doomed to decline so long as there is a strong FLOSS competitor.

  1. To my knowledge, not a single publication style file has ever been contributed by a non-Zotero user. 

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