Saturday, March 21, 2009

Using Zotero in an ePortfolio

Zotero has become one of the most popular Reference management and bibliography tools. Created by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University with funding from the US Institute of Museum and Library Services, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. It is an extension (add-on) for Firefox and is free.
Zotero is among the many excellent applications developed by the Center. The appear to have some very creative minds and an excellent team of designers, user interface experts and programmers along with some strong funding.

Zotero is in some ways like other reference managers:
  1. Allows one to build up a library of references along with specific information like Author names, dates, journal name, pages etc...
  2. Has a Word (and Open Office) plug in to insert citations into articles you write and to create a bibliography of the citations you use at the end of the article.
  3. Has multiple styles for citations and bibliographies that you can use based on which journal you are sending your manuscript to.
Zotero is different from out reference managers too:
  1. It is free
  2. It is an extension of a browser - this feature means Zotero understands that most databases of information are now online and people use a browser to search these databases. Even if you do want to add an article from a print journal into your library, you could still go to the appropriate database where this journal is indexed and find that article.
  3. Adding the article's appropriate information to your library is often seamless. A large number of these online databases (e.g. PubMed) are now Zotero ready. What this means is that when the browser opens a web page with information re' say a journal article, Zotero "senses" this and a small icon appears to the right of the URL box. Clicking on this icon adds all the metadata about that article into the appropriate fields in the Zotero Library.
  4. Zotero allows you to tag the article with keywords and also to add it to various "Collections". It also has a powerful search tool to search for through your references.
  5. Zotero allows you to get a "snapshot" of the webpage and annotate your copy of this snapshot (much like highlighting or commenting in a PDF file).
  6. Zotero also allows you to add your notes to the reference.
There are numerous features like this and Zotero is under constant development and new versions are being released regularly with additional features. Zotero user forums help to gather ideas and suggestions from the users and are regularly monitored by the development team. So is Zotero PERFECT?

I have one specific problem when using Zotero for a specific purpose. I am working with a couple of medical students to use Zotero for their ePortfolios. We have a home-grown ePortfolio system where all medical students get narrative formative and summative feedback through out their 5 years. These assessments are competency based (similar to ACGME competencies) and organized into areas of improvement and areas of strength. These are all done online and when submitted, they appear in the students' ePortfolio workspaces. The students write essays (ePortfolios) regarding their meeting various standards in each competency citing the evidence from the assessments.

We use EndNote or RefWorks to allow students to download all their references (assessment information), write their essays, cite the references, and then upload it all into a review area. The citations work as hyperlinks so when reviewer reading the essay wants to look at one of the cited references s/he has to just click on the citation to open a new window where the assessment form is displayed.

The problem I am facing with Zotero is that we cannot figure out how to make the citations in the text of the essay or in the bibliography clickable without going to each one and editing them. Since some of the students have as many as a 100 references in their bibliography this is not a viable solution.

It is very surprising that though Zotero is built on the philosophy of getting the references from online databases, it seems to have neglected that the manuscripts written by people using Zotero would be reviewed online where it would be critical for these citations to be hyperlinks!

I am relatively new to Zotero and am quite possibly missing something. I have scoured the Zotero forums, Googled the web and found nothing so far. Maybe the CSL does not at present allow this to occur? Would it be possible to add a "Web style" to Zotero's growing list of styles? If someone can do that, it will be the most appreciated!


  1. I did post this as a feature request in Zotero Forums. Lets see what reponse I can get.

  2. Within a couple of hours of posting my feature request, Dan Stillman, one of the developers at Zotero posted a "quick hack" to wrap URLs in HTML
    I have not had a chance to test it yet but am impressed with the level of support on a Saturday!