Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Zotero: creating bibliographies in the cloud


Lately I've become more and more interested in moving data off my machine(s) and into the cloud. I'm keen to do this partly to avoid having data in one place (e.g., a machine at work) when I need it someplace else (e.g., at home), and there are great tools for doing this (such as the wonderful Dropbox).

As a developer, the cloud appeals, not so much because of the compute power that some are salivating over, but because it may free me from having to create my own software. For example, some time ago I have created an OpenURL resolver to help me find articles online. I harvest a bunch of sources, such as CrossRef, PubMed, some OPAI respositories, etc., but there's always times where I find a reference online that I'd like to add, and that reference doesn't have an identifier such as a DOI.

Typically I add these manually, or by importing a file. I could write some interface code to add (and edit) a bibliographic reference (and, indeed I did some time back), but wouldn't it be great if somebody else had done this for me?

Well, there are some tools out there for handling bibliographies online, such as Connotea, Mendeley, and Zotero (a Firefox add-on). Initially I was skeptical of Zotero (and I'm not a big Firefox user), but now that I'm looking for a place to store obscure papers it's rapidly growing on me. I like the fact that I can add references in situ, and that I can upload PDFs (which can be stored remotely on a WebDAV disk such as an iDisk). But what makes Zotero even more attractive is that it generates an RSS feed of my bibliography, which I can then harvest just as I harvest other resources.

Using a resource like Zotero saves me the hassle of having to write my own bibliographic editor, plus I benefit from using a tool that's a lot more polished than one I could make. Because of this, and my experience with the Google Spreadsheets API, I'm ultimately aiming to never have to write a user interface again. If I write services, and rely on third parties to make tools that can either generate services I can use, or consume my services, then my life becomes a lot simpler.

OK, perhaps I exaggerate. I like making interfaces, such as my eBio09 entry, or the experiment with SpaceTree. However, I can imagine a situation where I don't have to write a data entry interface ever again.