EndNote sues Zotero

The most dramatic thing I almost missed due to my back problem at the start of this semester was EndNote suing Zotero. Well, actually, it was Thomson Scientific suing George Mason University (GMU), home of the Center for History and New Media — for whom I worked as an evangelist and project associate from 2007-2008 with Zotero. It’s been more than two months now since the assembled forces of darkness attacked Zotero, a free add-on for Mozilla Firefox to capture and manage citations, produce bibliographies, and navigate the research web.

While the web has dramatically transformed our access, the primary currency of academic knowledge production remains citations to other works. Prolific footnotes and generous bibliographies are the bread crumbs through which we can account for our own thoughts as researchers. In many ways, the web betrays its academic origins through the same logic of citation, which was buit into the basic structure of the web through its logic of links between pages and sites. Unlike EndNote, a fat desktop application, Zotero works inside the browser as an aid for storing, mixing and sharing citations to books, journals, web pages and media for reference, much like index cards, comments scrawled in margins, and lists and notes worked for an earlier generation researchers (and plenty of people today).

Thomson’s main complaint that Zotero “reverse-engineered” EndNote’s proprietary .ens format in a beta version, and are therefore in breach of their site license for EndNote. They are claiming damages of ten million dollars for the allegedly unauthorized distribution of this bit of EndNote inside Zotero. The Citizen Media Law Project run by Sam at the Berkman has the best single page on the EndNote Zotero suit, from their legal threats database, with a round-up of the key news items and blog posts on the lawsuit. See in particular Thomson Reuter’s original complaint filed in the Virginia State Court, the response by George Mason University in defense of interoperability.

This blog post summarizes and satirizes the legal claims, and this one analyzes the license violation in light of earlier state rulings. They are seeking damages from Zotero on the basis of a violation of GMU’s user license, and not on the basis of copyright, and the claim is peculiar. Those familiar with sharing citation styles knows that there is not much that needs reverse-engineering. Until very recently, we lacked even a basic markup language for sharing bibliographic data on the web. Then there was CSL, a creation of geographer and frustrated EndNote user Bruce D’Arcus whose simple scheme rapidly proliferated hundreds of citation styles in a matter of a few months, and which became Zotero’s native format for expressing citation styles. This was not reverse engineering, but rather open source development, where one person’s scratch can relieve thousands of itches.

GMU is a public institution supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and EndNote’s vendor, Thomson Scientific, is owned by Reuters. With such big names about to go to court the stakes are quite high for all casual and professional users of the web for any kind of systematic research. As an alumni of the Zotero team and doctoral student at MIT, it was gratifying to have friends in the free software community respond to the lawsuit. Mako was an early supporter (see the talk on Zotero he gave in my place at Wikimania). MacKenzie Smith at MIT Libraries summarizes the issues and gives an endorsement of Zotero in her blog post and her podcast. Also see legal expert Danny Weitzner‘s blog post, where he describes the suit as a legal strategy by a large software firm to restrict data interoperability on the web.

With a little help from these friends, as well as Eben Moglen and the Software Freedom Law Center now representing GMU pro-bono in the state court, the outcome will be interesting. Free software and open standards are quickly kicking the stools out from underneath the mess of clunky and expensive proprietary tools which made up the researcher’s basic software stack, though we have a long way to go. With integrated tools like Zotero, Firefox, and OpenOffice, the circle has already been completed between the research web and the writer’s desktop.


Filed under: main — Tags: , , — Shekhar @ 26 November 2008 12.00 am

Wish I Was at WordCampEd

Due to my continuing back problems, I was unable to attend WordCampEd 2008 (though I am the brown guy with his head hunched down the extreme right of the header image on their website). I sure wish I could have been there, as THATCamp was a blast and I spent most of last year working for as an evangelist with the Center for History and New Media for Zotero. These guys are awesome, check out their podcast Digital Campus for a taste of their conversations.

If I had made it down for the camp, focussed on using WordPress for educational and academic communities,  I had hoped to talk about the experience of building and designing the SUNY Stony Brook History Department website. This was my first attempt at a multi-user blog system for an academic department, and the template was based on work by Jeremy Boggs for the GMU Art History Department. The site went live in September, and has been developing iteratively for the past one year through the inputs of historians Chris Sellers, Eric Lewis Beverley, Larry Frohman, and Nancy Tomes.

With help from Jeremy to cut my teeth on css, I built on his core design to incorporate sidebar widgets and extensively furnished author profile pages and dashboard where faculty can upload their own photos, bibliographies, and run their own mini-blogs inside one WordPress site, posting to their own home pages, front page department news, and thematic blogs for different research areas within the department. As faculty participation in the site grows, these categories and areas will be easily extended to represent the strengths of the departments’ historians in such areas as Latin America and fields such as gender and the environment.

For this site, the open source ecology came to my aid in designing a new feature for faculty profile pages, where I extensively relied on Marco Cimmino’s excellent plugin Cimy Extended User Fields to manage custom fields and tags on the member pages for the historians at Stony Brook. These pages are easily the most important for any faculty, and I wanted them each to have a blog and feed which could be used for communicating their work, sharing ideas, and as a classroom tool. I paid for the developer to create a new feature for rich text fields for their bibliographies — this feature will hopefully appear in the next version of the plugin.

WIth faculty, staff, and graduate students, well over four hundred registered members in the Stony Brook History Department, using WordPress presented significant challenges due to its individual blogger orientation. Some significant limitations remain in WordPress’s user management and security functions, which plugins such as Role Manager help to address, such as custom user groups and controlling permissions — but not resetting passwords — for each group. Some other plugins at work on the site are Sidebar Login and COinS Metadata Exposer which embeds citations for each post as microformats.

Zotero can grab these embedded citations, and with the rich textarea fields on their profiles, faculty can simply drag and drop reading lists, a class syllabus, or their own publications into their home page or blog posts and have them slurped back into Zotero for later reference. This is something which I have done with another site called Bombayology in WordPress, where every post is for a meeting of our workshop on urban history and culture in India. The citations to assigned texts are embedded with OpenURL COiNS — which Zotero does in a simple drag and drop in your browser — and also linked to password-protected PDFs of the fully digitized text of the readings for that meeting.

If only I could have been at this special WordCamp, I would have also liked to talk about the other WordPress sites which I have developed and maintained over the past several years, including the personal archive and teaching blog of social anthropologist Keith Hart, the Memory Bank; the site of urban research and design group CRIT (Collective Research Initiatives Trust); the Writing Cities network between MIT, Harvard and LSE; the Urban South Asia workshop.

I have no doubt that the expert minds and hands of Dave Lester and Jeremy Boggs have created another excellent peer-learning experience at WordCampEd. I hope I’ll be there next year.


Filed under: main — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 22 November 2008 12.14 pm