Recently a librarian at UMW recently asked a few of us at DTLT to take RefWorks for a spin to see how we liked it. I was pretty happy to see that the library valued our opinion enough to ask for our input, so I started playing with RefWorks for the last day or two. According to their website, RefWorks might be quickly defined as follows:
RefWorks — an online research management, writing and collaboration tool — is designed to help researchers easily gather, manage, store and share all types of information, as well as generate citations and bibliographies.
I have to admit that at first I had a hard time managing the interface. And while RefWorks has good documentation, I didn’t use it with the logic (however misguided) that an intuitive and well-designed application should be easy to get up and running without it. After signing up for a 30-day trial I hit an immediate wall. The interface is web-based, and gives you all sorts of options for searching university catalogs, formatting bibliographical styles, exporting & importing resources, etc. But you don’t actually use this tool to search databases, in fact you search the online databases as usual, and after you save your sources in the respective databases you can then export them to RefWorks by simply clicking on a link. Simple enough once you are told as much (thank you Martha), but a bit confusing for me.
Also, it is important to note that not all databases are RefWorks friendly. So after finding sources in various online databases you may have to export some of these references to a text file locally and manually import them to your RefWorks database. One feature that may appeal to hardcore researchers and scholars is that RefWorks allows you to output your sources into a tremendous number of quite specific bibliographic styles. For example, if you are writing an article for a particular journal that has its own, unique formatting requirements for references, you can have RefWorks “style” your sources for that journal (if they have it as an option in their database, and they do have a ton!). For an undergraduate liberal arts college, however, this may be a bit of overkill for what is required of students in terms of research and formatting. Nonetheless, I can see where large research institutions may find such a powerful tool quite useful.
While playing with RefWorks I simultaneously tested Zotero (an extension for the Firefox 2.0+ browser) which collects, organizes, and cites your research sources. Zotero can capture information from online databases such as the Library of Congress or from journals like Jstor (these are the two I tested) quite easily. One of Zotero’s strengths is that it is extremely straight forward and easy to use, requiring little or no documentation to get up and running. However, one of the drawbacks is that unlike RefWorks, it is not a web-based application so it can only be controlled on the client-side. Why is this a problem, well if the library is thinking about offering such a tool, and the idea is that students will be using it in the library (perhaps an outmoded notion), then you cannot have various Zotero accounts floating around public computers throughout the library, for it would defeat the purpose of the tool. Zotero is a personalized research aid that allows the user to manage references within their own web browser, but not on the web. There is a pretty important distinction to make clear here, namely that Zotero stores nothing on the web, it simply scrapes information from various webpages, databases, and catalogs which it then, in turn, stores locally within your computer’s web-browser. How different would Zotero be if it was a web-based service? Very, but that is not yet the case.
Another thing to note about Zotero is that theoretically it allows you to share your research resources with others through an export/import functionality, but this has yet to work for us here at DTLT. This may be yet another feature that needs to be fine-tuned. What works well with Zotero, and I haven’t seen a similar feature for RefWorks, is the ability to take a snapshot of a particular webpage and save it with the bibliographical info you have collected. Additionally, you can make notes, create tags, add attachments, and create relationships between various sources. I guess the ideal future of Zotero is to keep the core functionality it currently offers, while making it a web-based service that would make it possible to share your resources with others as well as allowing folks to create links and connections with related research that other folks are sharing (this could be done through social tagging, a more rigorous RDF vocabularly, etc.), but the potential of such a tool is pretty remarkable for enabling people to share scholarly research.
Finally, these two programs have a major difference that needs to be considered. RefWorks is proprietary software that would cost UMW about $3,000 – $4,000 a year. At about $1 per student, this is by no means exorbitant given the functionality it offers. On the other hand, Zotero is a freely distributed open source software, so if the community around it continues to expand then the possibilities of the application will also expand proportionately. In my opinion, I think that RefWorks offers a small liberal arts college that is focused on undergraduate research just a bit too much. By no means is it over-priced, and I think it is a well conceived application from my initial stages of exploration. However, it is not intuitive and will quite possibly scare away students who are not trained on it for at least a half-hour to an hour. On the other hand, Zotero is an application the library can recommend, build some documentation for, and then let it play itself out. If it works, excellent. If not, then perhaps a more robust and sophisticated system is needed, and RefWorks may very well be a viable alternative.