Sometimes I feel that Open Source has a critical dependency: the user. And sometimes I feel that users deserve the software they choose to use, and the conditions attached to it. Last week I had one of these days.
A customer asked me to solve a mysterious problem: Microsoft Word 2007 with Reference Manager 12 crashed, and then Reference Manager was completely unavailable, even after re-installing both. This university lab has been a good customer for four years now – server side. Client side, besides the one exception (who runs Windows in VirtualBox), they barely tried Firefox.
Scientist write. They write a lot and they cite a lot. They need a database of references, and they must format them to the specifications of the journal where they will be published. In this lab, Reference Manager is king. A proprietary solution, owned by information technology giant Thompson Reuters (who conveniently also owns “competitor” EndNote).
After a little bit of fiddling, and against every documentation I found on the web, I found that Microsoft Word has an aptly named registry key: Resiliency/DisabledItems. It has decided that it does not work with Reference Manager 12.0.1 and put it on a black list. Forever. The only solution was to delete the registry key!
Even in light of this obviously intentional bug that handicapped half the lab for two weeks (they tried internal IT before calling me): They still insist using Microsoft Office, because Reference Manager does not work with OpenOffice. And they insist using Reference Manager. Their principal fears are the lack of support and the loss of the database they have built over more than a decade. I was unable to articulate to them that their biggest risk is to have their data locked into a proprietary format.
I’ve searched the web and found a few open sourced reference managers. But I have no experience and also no time to evaluate a migration (unfortunately I could not justify a mandate). Are there any guides out there for users of proprietary Reference Manager to migrate to an open source reference manager? I’m interested to know, and I’ll keep that one on the back burner until the next opportunity to convince the customer to give it a try.
It seems to me that Open Source works best when users and developers are equally IT literate. When there is a too strong asymmetry between developers and users, the users tend to prefer the proprietary model in exchange for perceived support. It’s like with financial consulting: individuals will be happy to pay exorbitant commissions to their broker but will not pay a penny for the buy or sell advice, even if trading is a commodity and the real value added lies in the advice. Pay your Open Source developer and you will see dedicated, passionate support.
Filed under: Open Source