I was disappointed (but not really surprised) to read earlier this week that Thomson Reuters Inc., the owners of Endnote, were suing George Mason University for housing the team in the Centre for History and New Media which created  of Zotero.  Zotero, if you haven’t been introduced, is a Firefox plugin which makes saving academic referencing material, building an archive of reference details, a pretty much everything else to do with citation, much, much easier.  Endnote is the big proprietary player in this field while Zotero is still a pretty small fish.  While I’ve never claimed to be a lawyer, the the complaint from Thomson Reuters seems based on the notion that (a) Zotero ‘reverse-engineered’ Endnote and (b) that Zotero used the import/translation files from Endnote without permission and what I’ve read suggests both of these claims are probably false.  If anything, in highlighting the proprietary nature of Endnote, I suspect this lawsuit is more likely to be the best publicity Zotero has ever received.  Also, I’d like to add, having used both Endnote and Zotero in tandem for some time (it’s not hard to move between the two) I probably wouldn’t have given the process much more thought.  Until today, that is, where in light of the philosophy at play in this lawsuit, I shall not be using Endnote ever again.

My UWA colleague Sky has made a very smart post on this issue, which I’d like to quote at length:

Now, back when I was doing honours, I used EndNote because the uni provided free copies, and free training. When I switched over to Ubuntu, I stopped using EndNote because it wasn’t available on linux at the time. I also put a bit more thought into the whole thing, and became mildly ticked off that the uni was putting yet more money into proprietary software (a student license for EndNote is about AU$300, although I imagine UWA gets a discount for volume).

I very strongly disagree with the university’s use of Windows, Endnote, and other proprietary software. Firstly, proprietary software goes against the ideals of academic scholarship (openness, peer review, building a body of public knowledge, etc etc). Secondly, the common complaint that “open software isn’t supported” isn’t true in most cases – on the Ubuntu forums you can usually get a response to a question within the hour. Thirdly, it is ludicrous that we are spending this amount of money on software when it could be better placed somewhere else. It could even, conceivably, be given to students and staff to help develop open source tools like Zotero and Ubuntu (or R, or any of the thousands of other potentially useful projects).

You may think that these things don’t matter. Maybe you’re not all that technical, and you’re used to using Windows. Maybe you’re studying anthropology, or politics, or cultural studies, or sports science, and you can’t see how it’s relevant to your work. But it matters. It matters because how we work affects the outcomes of our research – that’s one of the reasons why we have to fill in so many ethics applications. It matters because universities should contribute to a public pool of knowledge, not just “produce intellectual property”. It matters because as academics many of us spend vast amounts of our time working with computers: you may well spend more time with your software than with your kids/partner/students/pet fish/whatever.

I couldn’t agree more, and now that this lawsuit has made the politics behind Endnote and Zotero transparent, I’d like to anyone working in a university today one question: are you using Zotero, and if not, why not?

Update (5 June 2009):I’m delighted to announce that this morning the Fairfax Circuit Court dismissed the lawsuit filed against Zotero by Thomson Reuters.” 🙂

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3 Thoughts on “Thomson Reuters/Endnote sue George Mason Uni over Zotero!

  1. Now I’m feeling even better about changing to Zotero!
    I think Sky makes some really good points, although I understand how hard it can be for non-technical people (and, in fact, even for me) to decide to move away from mainstream software that often feels safer, even if it’s not. The idea of losing a thesis (or even a paper) is nerve-wracking, and wondering if someone might suggest that it’s your choice of “non-standard” software that led to your downfall is probably enough to put a lot of people off.

  2. “wondering if someone might suggest that it’s your choice of “non-standard” software that led to your downfall is probably enough to put a lot of people off”

    I would tick that box.

  3. Thanks for the link Tama – I’m so pleased that other people feel the same way about this, and have taken the time to look at the Zotero vs EndNote case in more depth than I did in my initial post.

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