Zotero and the Promise of Social Computing in Academia

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Dan Cohen

Dan Cohen

George Mason University
MITH Conference Room
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
12:30 pm

The Library of Congress contains over a million dissertations. Each of these works represents an average of four years of work by a specialist who has diligently and intelligently scanned, sorted, read, categorized, assessed, and annotated hundreds or thousands of primary and secondary sources. The staggering scale of this work–literally billions of person-hours in dissertation work alone, not to mention the research that went into the millions of other books those dissertations share shelf space with–should be matched by the regret academia should feel since almost all of this research is buried in filing cabinets or boxes or worse: soon-to-be obsolete digital media such as a floppy disk or the tacit knowledge of a researcher’s mind. Often the most we can expect to see from all of this work, aside from the book or article it informed, is the bibliography that is buried at the end of the printed text.

But what if we could use digital methods to recapture that enormous amount of scholarly work, the 90% of research that, like an iceberg, is hidden beneath the 10% of the final product? The Zotero project (which I co-direct) has released software that allows users to build, tag, and annotate their own research collections, with a high level of integration with online texts and databases; the next phase of the project will add a server through which users and groups can exchange, aggregate, and recommend digital texts and resources. If humanities researchers–professors, students, and others–widely adopted such digital tools, many parts of the scholarly process could be recaptured, and, more important, networked together. See www.zotero.org for more downloads and more information.

Cohen is a Professor of History in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University and the Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. His personal research has been in digital humanities, broadly construed: the impact of new media and technology on all aspects of knowledge, from the nature of digitized resources to twenty-first century research techniques and software tools to the changing landscape of communication and publication.

He’s the co-author of  Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), and the author of Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007). He has published articles and book chapters on new media, the history of mathematics and religion, the teaching of history, scholarly communication, and the future of the humanities in a digital age in journals such as the Journal of American History, Victorian Studies, and Rethinking History. Cohen’s work and thought has been featured frequently in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Times Higher Education.

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