REVIEW: NOTABENE AND BIBLIOSCAPE
Getting better all the time
Felix Grant updates the advances in two bibliographic database systems.
When I surveyed bibliographic database systems in Research Information a year ago ('We all need a good reference', April 2002), I included two representatives (Nota Bene Scholar's Workstation and BiblioScape) of a software type which includes such databasing within a larger scope: research information managers (RIMs). Research organisers handle citations and references, in the same way as bibliographic software. They also seek to tame other information stores, particularly those of less structured (or 'freeform') nature, and usually offer a report writing tool as well. Since then, both products have made significant moves which merit another look.
BiblioScape places the information itself at the focus; NotaBene (NB) approaches from the other direction, putting the report at the centre instead. They are not, rationally speaking, competitors but, alas, as buyers and users,we are often not as rational as we like (as scientists) to think we are!
It is now much easier to use NB or BiblioScape in a generic software environment based on market dominant tools, and it has become realistic for both of them to co-operate. I tested it out by running both within a short seven-handed research project; I wasn't disappointed, although I did discover some areas where further developments would be welcome.
Both NB (version 6.1 at the time of writing) and BiblioScape (version 5.3) have a built in report writer. NB starts from a full-blown word processor, adding a structured database manager (Ibidem) and an indexed freeform textbase manager (Orbis) to create the RIM environment. BiblioScape starts from the databases; it then adds a modest word processor (BiblioWord), while tacitly assuming that many users will ignore it in favour of Word or WordPerfect.
NB was always good at importing and exporting (or opening and saving) other word processor formats; this facility is now even better. File exchange is now explicitly RTF based, and the filters preserve more closely the originating format. The downside is less transparency of transfer; it is no longer possible to directly open and save other formats. MS Word files still open directly, provided that MS Word itself is installed; if you are moving work between users of NB and other word processors, get into the habit of saving and opening RTF files. We also found there seems to be a risk of instability if NB6.1 and WordPerfect 10 are run simultaneously on the same machine.
BiblioScape's improvements concern its communications with other word processors. In version 4, I couldn't insert and format BiblioScape references into WordPerfect directly. Now this has been remedied. BiblioSidekick (BiblioScape's utility which handles insertion of references very conveniently when working with MS Word) still refuses to work with my copy of WordPerfect 10, but this no longer matters as BiblioScape now has a new mechanism - a menu item on the main reference screen called 'shoot'. Highlight a source in BiblioScape, and you can then 'shoot' a reference directly to the current cursor position in Word or WordPerfect. The reference can be a simple temporary tag for later formatting (as in most bibliographic systems) or ready formatted; if formatted, it can also be 'shot' into a footnote or endnote, complete with superscript at the cursor position. Buttons can be added to Word or WordPerfect menu bars to handle in-document tasks such as formatting, unformatting, and removal of formatting codes. Should you be using another word processor, there are also toolbar buttons which copy either a temporary tag or a formatted reference to the clipboard, from where it can be pasted into any program which accepts it. As an extreme test, we tried writing a short report in Windows Notepad (a text only editor), then successfully copying and pasting both tags and formatted references into it; when the result was imported into BiblioWrite, Word or WordPerfect, the tags formatted perfectly.
Up until now, NB's main drawback has been that importing bibliographic references from existing stores into NB's own Ibidem was a real chore. This has all changed. If you use one of the 'big three' bibliographic database managers from ISI ResearchSoft (or one which will export in a compatible format), then there is no longer any need to weigh up the advantages of writing in NB against the convenience of instant access to existing bibliographies. EndNote and ProCite are addressed directly (as is Citation); Reference Manager will export a suitable conversion. Databases, or selected record subsets from them, can now be appended to an Ibidem database.
Another appeal is the ability to use an existing Z39.50 compliant search tool. SeaChange Corporation's product BookWhere is NB's own choice, but no longer the only one. If you work entirely within NB, then go for BookWhere whose results import directly and transparently; but if you or your institution already uses EndNote (or whatever), you can go on using it for your Z39.50 searches, directing the results to databases which are then appended to your Ibidem working store. BiblioScape has always had easy import, so the two can now be run together in the same work setting. A set of references can be moved between BiblioScape and a third party bibliographic manager such as EndNote, in either direction, or into NB from either, but not, as yet, out of NB into the other two. Top of my wish-list for the next release of NB is the addition of equivalent Ibidem export facilities.
The other main function of a RIM is organisation of notes or other general textual material not inherently structured in a traditional record and field manner. Once again, both BiblioScape and NB provide good support for this 'textbase' organisation. In NB, it is given the name 'Orbis', while BiblioScape calls it the 'Notes Module'. NB has the edge when it comes to cataloguing existing material; it will trawl through existing files, indexing what it finds. This is a godsend for people like me, who are fundamentally disorganised and have to discipline themselves to ordered note taking. BiblioScape assumes, instead, that you are a responsible adult who will remember to put your notes into its organiser as you create them!
Orbis has seen the same sort of cumulative enhancement in this release as Ibidem. Ability to open the entire file in which the current match has been found, with the cursor moving to the appropriate point in that file, makes for more intuitive use. Synonym lists which are easier to edit, changed terminology to match current usage (directories become folders, for instance), and an option for vowelless searches (useful in handling text items containing words from unfamiliar alphabets) are other examples. BiblioScape's Notes Module has meanwhile acquired a new, faster, more robust full-text search engine (also available in the references Module) and a button save off the current document in RTF, Plain Text, or HTML formats.
NB is an individual tool; install it on your system and it immediately provides you, personally, with a better way of doing things. Install it on every machine in a work group, and there will be even more gain; but the emphasis will still be improved individual working. BiblioScape is more oriented towards group working; install it on a set of machines using diverse regimes and you will immediately give their users a vision of better collective organisation. BiblioScape's interface looks noticeably different in this release, as it refines both relations between and access to its components, while NB looks pretty much the same because changes would compromise its core function.
BiblioScape has one major change behind the scenes - the back end database default is no longer Borland's Paradox. Following on from this, the package supplied is both client and server ready. The server part allows three concurrent client instances by default, which in practice allows a useful workgroup size in most cases; beyond that point, additional capacity licensing can be purchased. There is also an ODBC driver for separate purchase.
Despite my team-leader characterisation above, BiblioScape comes in several versions. At the top of the tree comes the Librarian edition, which can easily manage a moderately-sized research library including interloans, booking out and return, and so on. Below this come less expensive versions for individual use and, at the bottom, a freeware bibliographic tool called BiblioExpress. BiblioExpress has been as radically overhauled as its bigger siblings and is now a seriously useful tool in its own right. The availability of BiblioExpress, a small and freely distributable bibliographic program, leads nicely up to two areas which BiblioScape is either providing now or is looking to develop next. Distributed working is undoubtedly the future: looking upstream, so to speak, that means working over the web, while the downstream view is through small handheld devices.
A primary virtue of any pocket device is instant availability of information. There are two problems here: carrying your desktop bibliographies around with you is one side of it, and updating them with new information brought back from the field (or library) is another. I used to export my bibliographies to text files, use a set of word processor macros to massage them, then either carry them in that form or import them to a more structured spreadsheet or database format. Nowadays I use a small conversion utility written for me by Canadian programmer Stephen Hawkins, which takes the output from my bibliographic manager and passes it directly to palmtop database manager JFile. That second route is the one which BiblioScape are developing; EndNote 6, by contrast, emulates my original method and stores the output in Palm MemoPad records. Moving material back the other way, from Palm machine to desktop, is harder though. Nothing I've seen improves on my own method of scanning records to individual handheld text files, then cutting and pasting into the desktop program later - hardly high tech chic!
In the other direction, BiblioScape already looks extensively to the ubiquity of the internet; it has an integral browser, and will store whole web pages in the References and Notes modules. At the moment, Z39.50 is without question the way to tap into existing bibliographic stores in traditional structured formats - and is likely to stay so for the foreseeable future. (BiblioScape already eschews Z39.50 in favour of web capture, and I have reservations about this - though web capture works well, the direct interrogation of databases can be quicker and more efficient). But what of all that unstructured information out there, which must also be referenced? And, conversely, how can the web most effectively service the distributed collaborative work which it has fostered? BiblioScape has made a good start towards dealing with this, as have programs such as GetaRef.
BiblioScape offers web hosting of your databases. It has also started preparations for movement of the whole management structure onto the fabric of the web itself. This migration is echoed in WriteNote, recently (it went to market release candidate status just as this article was being finalised) launched by ISI ResearchSoft.
ISI ResearchSoft strongly emphasises that WriteNote is not a bibliographic program in itself; it is a tool for introducing proper source referencing to students. Nevertheless, it is a sign of how bibliographic management might in the future develop. Rather than face a specialised database window for reference generation, the user works through buttons on the top toolbars of Internet Explorer and MS Word. It seems fairly certain that, as the semantic web gains ground, many traditional freestanding applications will increasingly merge with it and become local manifestations of a globally distributed whole. Developments such as WriteNote and BiblioScape's web components may not be the front line for their publishers today, but they are certainly foundations for the front line of the future.
In our review, six team members were left alone with their own choice of office suite but five were given copies of BiblioExpress and the sixth an installation of BiblioScape. The seventh was given an NB installation, and the central control machine, which administered the project, was set up with both BiblioRemote (the server side component of BiblioScape) and EndNote 6. After the first week everything went well; the different packages co-operated without a hitch, and productivity was gratifying.
The feedback threw up conclusions that largely match my own. First, that a RIM is worth its weight in gold - the value of either option tried here outweighs the differences between them. Second, that by opening up easy import to Ibidem, NB as an academic writing tool has moved from 'wonderful, but' to 'go and buy it', while BiblioScape is better than ever as a team environment. Fourth: that the next release NB should give Ibidem an option to export tagged text in commonly used formats, while BiblioScape should add the convenience of Z39.50 capture.