Zotero: A Great Research Tool

What Is Zotero?

If you're doing research for a high school project, a degree/diploma (especially thesis-related work), for journalistic purposes, etc., an excellent must-have and must-use tool is Zotero. Zotero is a Firefox Add-On helps you easily collect and organize on-line information you need to capture and remember details about (including the ability to properly cite it later) . Briefly, Zotero:

  • enables one to capture a web page as it looks at a certain point in time,
  • it allows one to highlight and annotate any captured (web) page,
  • it allows one to search any captured pages (web pages, PDFs with additional software installed, etc.),
  • it remembers all reference information (e.g., time & date of capture, URL, etc.),
  • it has the ability to capture information from Google Scholar and scholarly journal web sites complete with full bibliographical information,
  • it can copy-and-paste bibliographical information (in nearly any style: APA, Chicago, etc.), and,
  • it integrates with Microsoft Word and OpenOffice allowing one to drag-and-drop references.

Using Zotero

Some of the more commonly used features in Zotero that I like and use are:

  • The "My Library" View (first third of Zotero window):
    • the ability to create a directory structure, and,
    • the ability to drag-and-drop folders to new locations.
  • In the middle third of the Zotero screen:
    • In the green, circular "+" pull-down menu:
      • Store Copy of File…
    • Via the right-click menu for a stored item:
      • Add Attachment…
        • Attached Stored Copy of File…
      • Remove Selected Item
      • Delete Selected Item from Library
      • Create Bibliography from Selected Item
      • Retrieve Metadata for PDF
    • Advanced Search (via the Magnifying Glass icon)
  • In the far-right third of the Zotero screen…
    • The "Info", "Notes", "Tags", and "Related" tags are simply wonderful to tag items, etc. Such information can subsequently be used with searches etc.

Zotero is easy-to-use and documentation exists on the Zotero web site so I won't re-create that here. Instead, I will give some highlights of my experience using Zotero.

Attached Stored Copy of File

One of the nicest things that Zotero can do is attached other files to an entry you make or previously captured. For example, when performing surveys of the literature, you will often capture bibliographic reference information from scholarly journals and Google Scholar. Sometimes PDFs of the papers are automatically captured, but, usually they are not. Often however, such paper PDF files are available (e.g., via your university's web site proxies) for free –but you'll have to download the papers manually. Nicely, you'll want to associate the downloaded PDF with the captured bibliographical information. To do this, simply right-click on the captured bibliographical entry (in the middle section) and choose "Attached Stored Copy of File…", select the downloaded file, and Zotero will store a copy of that file in that entry.

Retrieve Metadata For PDF

This is a fantastic feature! Suppose you have a paper's PDF file but don't have the bibliographical information associated with it. Attach a stored copy of it into Zotero, right-click it, and choose "Retrieve Metadata for PDF". Zotero will then extract the full bibliographical data for nearly all PDFs for scholarly journals and conference proceedings papers. This is simply a must-have tool when you don't have the rest of the citation information.

NOTE: In cases where this did not work, I simply searched Google Scholar for an exact of the PDF's title. Once found, then I clicked the folder icon in the address bar to add the reference to Zotero. While this seems like more work, it often is much faster than typing it in yourself.

Removing & Deleting Items

Users should take care when using these features:

  • Remove Selected Item
  • Delete Selected Item from Library

Remove will delete the currently selected item instance ONLY. So, if you dragged-and-dropped that item elsewhere (e.g., you can do this with the "My Library" folders), then those items are NOT deleted –only the selected one is. This is the safest method of deleting an item. So, if in doubt, always use "Remove Selected Item" to delete something instead of "Deleted Selected Item from Library".

The "Delete Selected Item from Library" will delete all references to that item in the library even copies made of that item via drag-and-drop to other folders in the "My Library" section. Only use this feature if you are sure you want all references to that item removed from the entire library –regardless of where they are located.

It should be mentioned that if you capture two copies of a page independently and you use "Delete Selected Item from Library" then only those items copied from the one being deleted are destroyed. Independent captures of the same page will not be deleted. While this sounds confusing, you can do a small test to show how all of this removing and deleting works:

  • Create a "Test 1" folder in the "My Library" section.
  • Select the "Test 1" folder.
    • This must be done so Zotero knows where to save any captured pages.
  • Navigate to a web page (e.g., http://www.slashdot.org/).
  • Capture it using the cyan page icon in Zotero.
  • Create a "Test 2" folder in the "My Library" section.
  • Create a "Test 3" folder in the "My Library" section.
  • Click on the "Test 1" folder in the "My Library" section.
  • Click on and then drag-and-drop the Slashdot captured page to the "Test 2" folder. Do the same again but to the "Test 3" folder.
    • Notice that this does not move the captured page –but appears to make a copy of it.
    • This copy is by-reference. Which means if you use "Delete Selected Item from Library" then ALL by-reference copies are also deleted (and any annotations, etc. with such). Try it!
    • If you instead use the cyan page icon to make multiple independent captures, then those will still remain after a "Delete Selected Item from Library" –it is only those that were copied by-reference that are deleted. Again try it –before you use it for something critical!
  • When done trying the above out, delete the items you captured (from Library) and remove the library folders created.

Create Bibliography from Selected Item

At some point you want to get the information out of Zotero and into a real document/paper you are working on. Even if you don't have Microsoft Word or OpenOffice integration configured, you can easily put any selected reference into a paper, web page, etc. using Zotero. Simply right-click on the entry (in the middle third of the Zotero screen) and choose "Create Bibliography from Selected Item", choose the Citation Style (e.g., APA), and I find that "Copy to Clipboard" is the most useful since you only will need to paste the reference into your document.

NOTE: If you have Microsoft Word or OpenOffice integration, then there are more features including auto-updating the bibliographical information using Zotero.

Closing Comments

If you are doing any type of research using on-line resources, Zotero makes it very easy to track and maintain lots of references while allowing you to organize and search the referenced content. Truly, using Zotero to conduct on-line research is much easier than doing the same by hand!

Upgrading from Moodle 1.9 to 2.0

As is now apparent on the eTeach page (accessible via the menu bar above), I have installed a new eTeach web site running Moodle 2.0. Moodle 2.0 has a number of new and cool features which I look forward to using (some now and others later).

I have found Moodle's installation is one of the nicest open source web application-based installations as long as I have been using it (i.e., since approximately version 1.6) and now one can also install it via the command line too! Unfortunately, upgrading from the latest 1.9 release to version 2.0 was not as smooth as past upgrades. The main issues I experienced involved the database upgrade which were a series of table transformations. The most common issue I experienced was the NOT NULL constraint being added to columns. Those were easy fixes: I was able to add reasonable data to the NULL fields violating such or I could safely remove the record. Where I ran into a brick wall concerning the Wiki tables: there were apparently illegal UTF-8 characters. I tried all sorts of things including dumping the database, running iconv on it, and restoring it. Nothing worked.

Having spent too much time trying to fix the wiki tables, I decided to make the old eTeach site URI map to "eteach1" and install Moodle 2.0 as a new install to "eteach2". If there is anything that I need from the old one, I can copy-and-paste, or, backup and then restore the course. This is much simpler, practical and far less time-consuming! The installation of Moodle 2.0 as a new install was flawless except for one issue: $CFG->dbfamily was not in the config.php file and had to be manually added for the cron.php script to fully work.

I suspect the problems I experienced migrating from 1.9 to 2.0 were due to past database upgrades. Originally, the database was not UTF-8 and bugs/errors may have given rise to the NULL entries in records. This is not surprising since I've being using this copy since version 1.6.

Why upgrade? The features in Moodle 2.0 far outweigh what is version 1.9, especially with the improved wiki and the ability to make activities dependent. I look forward to using it and should you be in one of my courses, I hope you enjoy using it! If so and you have ideas/suggestions, feel free to do so!

OSSTF Tools and Toys Conference Presentations

On October 28th and 29th, I gave two presentations at the OSSTF Tools and Toys: Technology in Education conference held in Toronto, Ontario. The first presentation I made (on Workshop Session B, Oct. 28th) was:

Understanding Internet Identity, Safety, and Privacy Issues Workshop
The Internet is a wonderful medium enabling students, teachers, and society to interact with one another around the world in real-time. However, there are real dangers that the Internet poses for everyone, especially for teachers using such within his/her lessons plans. This Workshop is designed to inform teachers, using non-technical language, what a number of these dangers are, how they operate, and what can be done to avoid these issues in order to keep such exercises safe.

In this presentation I explained the well-known issues, but, I also focused a lot of attention concerning these two issues: (i) the perils of blocking content and the fact that many students (and some teachers!) use proxies and/or tunnels to bypass such; and (ii) how to determine whether or not a teacher should use Internet web sites (versus controlled-for-education web sites, e.g., school-board-hosted sites). Despite the details in the talk being necessarily somewhat heavy, the talk was very well-received and understood.

The second presentation I made was (Workshop D, Oct. 29th):

Augmenting the Classroom Experience Outside the Classroom With E-Learning Workshop
As a teacher, there are times when one would like to have the ability to do something available outside the classroom for students and possibly their parents, e.g., schools where students cannot stay after school due to catching a bus. This presentation will show how this can be done incrementally using a Learning Management System (LMS) called Moodle.

During this talk networking (e.g., servers running on my laptop) and Internet issues prevented me from demonstrating the things I was presenting. (Networking connectivity in the presentation areas was an issue at the conference. Unfortunately, my own laptop configuration with servers, etc. had an issue which prevented me from demonstrating it without a network.)

Should you wish, feel free to contact me concerning either of the above presentations.