February 2018
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Speaking of lawsuits…

…there’s been a recent update in another lawsuit, the Thomson Reuters vs Zotero case. Zotero, an open-source reference manager that works directly inside Firefox (whose praises I sung before) are currently being sued by Thomson Reuters (maintainers of Endnote, a proprietary reference manager software package), claiming that Zotero (or rather, George Mason University, where the Zotero developers are based) reverse-engineered their Endnote software in breach of the Endnote license agreement. The background is described in more detail on these blogs: DLTJ (part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4) and Martin Feldstein (part 1 and part 2).

Particularly notable is Martin Feldstein’s initial opinion (that Thomson Reuters’ case may have merit) changing as he learned more and more facts about the case. It is extremely good academic practice to seek to back up hypotheses with evidence and to let go of the ones that are not supported, and as such, extremely laudible. Others, take note.

A recent development in the case is that Zotero have sent emails to all members of the Zotero development community informing them that Thomson Reuters have demanded that George Mason University release the contact information for all “SVN/Trac account holders”. For the uninitiated, SVN/Trac is a tool for developing software, particularly useful for open-source projects and projects with a large team of developers. SVN (short for SubVersion) is a tool for “Version control” – ensuring that when a developer alters a component part of the software project, previous versions of that component are logged in case they need to be restored at a later date. Trac is a bug-tracking tool, allowing testers and developers to report bugs and suggest changes. The two parts, SVN and Trac, are integrated so that SVN can keep track of component parts where there are unresolved bugs and Trac can keep track of which versions of the software bugs were reported in and/or fixed.

In open-source, however, anyone who has ever made even a tiny contribution to the project, from the key developers right down to a passing hobbyist who chipped in with a couple of bug reports, will have an account with the SVN/Trac system. Quite what Thomson Reuters would wish to do with this information is anyone’s guess. I daren’t speculate. After all, I Am Not A Lawyer.

A recent post by A.P.Gaylard showed just what can be done with open-source reference managers, such as Zotero and CiteULike (the latter was A.P.Gaylard’s choice). The post was a very well-written systematic review of the evidence on homeopathy as a treatment for hayfever, complete with full references. You can even visit his reference library online if you like. The existence of these free, yet powerful, tools really does help to undermine quacks who try to give their nonsense a sense of “scienc-iness” by including a long list of sloppy references, when there really is absolutely no excuse (not even cost of software licenses) for doing so.

So anyway, my plea is this. Even if you are not comfortable with switching from your existing reference manager software (if that’s been the one you’ve just struggled to get to grips with and now have your entire bibliography stored in that format), please be aware that free, open-source alternatives do exist, and are capable of doing a very good job indeed. Please suggest them to your colleagues, particularly those who are starting out their academic careers. Also, please keep abreast of the Thomson Reuters vs Zotero case. I will endeavour to do so myself as well.


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