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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Coming to an Archive Near You: Lots of Research Data

Two of the Internet’s most important archive initiatives are teaming up in an attempt to capture the raw notes of researchers from around the world and preserve them for public access. It’s an ambitious goal, but will they be able to pull it off?

This week, the Mellon Foundation announced an award of more than $1.2 million to the Internet Archive and George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. The purpose of the grant is to further develop the center’s digital archiving tool, Zotero, so users can automatically store their research notes and raw data sources on the Internet Archive, so the general public will have access to that content. Zotero is a free, open source “plug-in” that is installed in the Firefox Web browser. It allows users to capture and annotate Web content for research purposes. For example, let’s say you were reading this blog entry and found it useful for a research project. Assuming you were running Zotero on your Web browser, it would grab whatever content from the page you wanted to save, let you take notes on why you saved it and output a citation for you. These materials would then be saved in a searchable archive of all the other Web content you’ve saved and annotated, not unlike an iTunes playlist for your research sources.

With the money received from the Mellon Foundation, the two organizations will be able to develop a way for users of Zotero to backup all of their research materials onto the Internet Archive, the world’s largest public repository of digital content. The archive currently allows anyone to upload whatever they want to the site - audio, video, photos, text, etc - and store it there in perpetuity at no cost. You’re able to create an account on archive.org and upload content yourself, but the site also lets other online tools interact with it directly. For example, users of the video sharing site blip.tv can save a backup of all of their videos on the archive simply by clicking a checkbox. Doing this tells the two websites to cooperate with each other, so your videos get saved in both locations.

With the grant money, the same time of cooperation will now take place between your Zotero plug-in and the Internet archive. Zotero will include a new feature that makes your private research notes public, searchable on archive.org. “It’s pooling together all of these resources that scholars have and putting them in one place where they can be found,” center director Dan Cohen told the Chronicle for Higher Education.

Of course, there are some hurdles they’ll have to overcome in order to make this dream a reality. For one thing, more researchers would have to adopt Firefox as their browser and install the plug-in. But that might be a minor challenge in comparison to bigger issues, such as the addressing the specter of copyright and encouraging people to be comfortable with uploading all of their private research materials for public consumption.

In a blog post on Ars Technica, John Timmer offered this perspective:

Will the material that’s uploaded be of any value? Based on my personal experience, the answer here will be mixed. I’ve taken notes and made annotations for everything from peer-reviewed publications to articles for Ars, but only a fraction of the ideas ever make it into the publication. Within the remainder, there are some genuine insights that don’t make the cut due to a lack of direct relevance or space constraints. But there are also a lot of spur-of-the-moment thoughts that I later reject due to further reading or analysis. Unless all contributors are careful about what they upload, this effort may produce a storehouse of bad ideas.

I’m wondering, though, what would happen if K-12 students were encouraged to use Zotero. On the one hand, it might be an interesting way to teach students how to organize and annotate their source materials when conducting online research. On the other hand, would the archive become yet another way for students to cut corners or even plagiarize?

What do you think? Are you or your students using Zotero already? Do you think this is a useful development from a K-12 perspective? -andy

Filed under : Research


Wow, my school is not yet using this, but I am sure that it will be using it soon. I am excited to use somthing that sounds so seemingly simple,(not to mention helpful). I and my fellow students will hopefully be using this soon!

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