The Zotero Quest

Those who know a little about role-playing games (RPG) may be familiar with the concept of ‘levelling up’. When your character acquires a certain quantity of experience (all experience is quantitative in these games), they pass from their current level to the one above, becoming – in a variety of ways – more powerful.

In some ways, the life of a PhD student is a bit like an RPG. And not just because of the peculiarities of our habitat. As you complete the various quests that constitute your research (find and read all your sources; write a conference paper, an article, a chapter, a thesis, a book…), you acquire experience and, ultimately, level up.

Of course, there are some events during a doctorate (as in an RPG) that earn you more experience than others. In a game like <i>Final Fantasty</i>, for instance, one earns a great deal more experience from defeating a story-specific enemy – known as a ‘boss’ – than from scything your way through all of his or her underlings.

There are many candidates for the academic equivalent of a boss. My supervisor, much as I’m fond of him, has occasionally played this role (albeit without the tentacles), asking me a difficult question, which, once answered, unlocks new power for my research. Alternatively, and perhaps more plausibly, one might consider job interviews, journal submissions or conference presentation as boss battles. Or maybe I’m just too combative a speaker.

I’m also wandering from my original aim. You see, I have just had a level up moment. It involves footnotes, a word I only use here, after a long and exciting exposition, in the hope that it won’t make you stop reading.

The chapters of my thesis have between 150 and 200 of what the French call “notes de bas de page” each. Inserting all of them was a long and painful process, but it would have been far longer and far more painful if I had not been using Zotero to store my bibliographical data. Like a particularly potent piece of equipment, this program has made my forays into the dungeons at the foot of each page of my thesis much easier. And yet, as I discovered recently, I had been wielding it ineptly.

Take a look at this.

bad notes

Although these footnotes follow the MHRA style guide to the letter, they are not good footnotes. Numbers 126, 128 and 130 all refer to one edition of Shakespeare’s plays, while notes 129 and 131 refer to another. This information will be quite useful to my reader, but to make it appear I would have to complete the oddest quest my PhD has set me yet.

Enter Zotero’s Visual CSL editor. With this tool, once can rewrite the ontologies of a style. It takes some time to work out how it functions (although a lot less time than reading the code itself), but, once you have it, you can create your own, modified style guides.

good notes

Voilà.

While I am, perhaps, a bit too proud of these footnotes now, there is a larger point to be made here too. Changing the format of these lines entailed acquiring a far better understanding of how Zotero worked, and how to modify it. On top of this, it also taught me about the ontology of citation: the immensely clever system that has the capacity to enclose all other systems of reference.

I’d say that makes me, roughly, a level 28 researcher.

 


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