I wasn’t planning to make this a software weblog, but I’ll make an exception for Zotero because I think fellow researchers will find it an interesting tool. Zotero [ˌzɔˈtɛɹoʊ] is a free piece of software that lives in your browser, helping you to ‘collect, manage and cite your research sources’ in all sorts of beautiful ways. It bills itself as The Next-Generation Research Tool, and in this post I’ll try to explain why I think that’s true. The background to this posting is that I made the move from Endnote to Zotero two months ago — and I have never since considered going back.
It all started when I upgraded from Endnote 7 to Endnote X to get Unicode support.1 Endnote X included Endnote Web, a web-based implementation that looked interesting. I had some difficulty getting the two to work together, and when I finally did, there were drawbacks that made me look out for an alternative. A Google search led me to Zotero, which was a breeze to install. I could simply import my Endnote library and started a testdrive. Within minutes I was totally hooked. The Zotero interface offered everything I had been missing in Endnote and then some. What makes Zotero so good?
Seamless integration with online research
First of all, Zotero answers the needs of researchers in the digital age. The rise of online repositories like JSTOR, ProQuest, SpringerLink, and Google Scholar has caused a shift in our research habits; we spend more time browsing virtual libraries, and less time hanging around in physical ones.2 Zotero seamlessly integrates with this online experience by automating the wearisome labour of saving references and by offering many ways to manage and enrich the data thus collected. All from within the web browser.3
With Zotero, adding a reference from an online repository to your database takes exactly one click. If an abstract is available (as in such repositories as SpringerLink and CSA), it will be saved with the record; if you have fulltext access to the repository, Zotero will moreover save a local copy of the PDF. But Zotero doesn’t just grab references from repositories; it can also save a snapshot of any web page and make it available for citation. This comes in handy when you want to make sure you have a copy of the page for future reference. Web pages saved in this way can be viewed offline, and Zotero even lets you annotate these snapshots just as you would do on paper. Unlike your paper scribbles, all of your Zotero annotations and notes are searchable.
Reference management, the intuitive way
Secondly, Zotero is a fully fledged reference manager with an intuitive interface. For those of you using Endnote —as I did until two months ago— this combination may sound otherworldly. Basically, Zotero takes that huge flat list of references that stares you in the face when you start up Endnote and transforms it into a neat, manageable and searchable personal library. No more trying to get your mind around the intricacies of Showing and Hiding references in Endnote — instead, use collections, tags and saveable searches to take control of your library.
Zotero enables you to organize references into collections. References can be in more than one collection and collections can have subcollections. References can be related to each other so that you can easily link reviews or chapters of a book to the book itself.4 Advanced search capabilities enable you to do fulltext searches in your library or in portions of it (yes, it can index your PDFs too!). Searches can be saved; if saved, they are dynamically updated so that any new items fitting the search criteria are found too. Zotero also brings the power of tagging to your reference database, enabling fine-grained categorization as well as easy category intersection. And of course, Zotero can import and export citations in all major formats, making it perfectly easy to switch back to Endnote, or more to the point, to share citations with colleagues.
Word processor integration
Not only is Zotero a great reference manager, it integrates with your favourite word processor too. It supports both Microsoft Word and OpenOffice/NeoOffice through plugins (here’s how), adding a bunch of buttons to your word processor which help you insert and edit citations and bibliographies. In a preference window you can specify the citation style you want to use. The most commonly used styles are already available, and the list of supported styles continues to grow. XML-savy users can add and distribute their own citation styles.
Another thing worth mentioning is that Zotero will run on Mac and Linux just as fine as on Windows. This is because Zotero is built on the Firefox extension framework. (One implication of this is that Zotero will only run on Firefox 2 and not, for example, on Internet Explorer. If you do not already use Firefox, this is as good a reason as any to switch.) While we’re at it, some of you may also like to know that under the hood, Zotero uses the sqlite database engine. If you are not sure what that means, the most important thing to remember is that Zotero is based on open source technologies which, by their very nature, will continue to be freely available in the future (unlike proprietary software, the development and maintenance of which is driven by monetary interests).
That’s just the start of it
In this post I have focused on those features of Zotero that made me decide to switch. But I have not nearly exhausted everything it does. Some things I find particularly cool are the fact that it can export to HTML with embedded COinS metadata, allowing other Zotero users to surf by and capture the references (more info); its ability to generate reports, consisting of a list of selected references together with tags and notes you added (example); the option to visualize your references on a timeline (screenshots); and the possibility to build a bibliography simply by dragging and dropping references from Zotero into any text edit box (which is how I usually cite on The Ideophone).
If you want to give Zotero a try (remember it’s free!), here are some useful resources:
- A review of Zotero by Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Education
- Zotero.org, the page from where you can install Zotero and find detailed instructions for use
- Documentation, including nice introductory screencasts
- The Zotero forums, a place where helpful people hang around to answer your questions
- A podcast on Zotero presented by Chris Strauber, Reference & Web Services Librarian at Wofford College
Thanks for reading — comments welcome!
- Some Unicode support been in place since v. 8 on, though without RTL abilities. [↩]
- We all like to stress how we still appreciate the feel of paper in our hands, and the smell of books in a well-stocked library. The point here is merely that as more and more of these offline sources become available for online searching, our research habits (though not necessarily our reading habits) are bound to be affected by this. [↩]
- Endnote, the mammoth of reference management, has a radically different approach. As a standalone application, it isolates the reference database from where the action is. This is perfectly understandable from a traditional perspective (don’t forget Endnote is a pre-web application), but I would argue that it is seriously out of sync with today’s reality, adding unneccesary complexity to things we don’t want to waste our time on.
Yes, I know Endnote boasts the ability to search for references from within the application. But seriously, how many of us routinely go to ‘Tools > Connect’, select a repository, search, wait while references are being retrieved (in the process some four dialog windows have opened on top of each other), then select those that seem interesting on the basis of author, year, or title (if you want more information, you have to doubleclick a reference, opening a fifth window), and finally copy them to Endnote? Of course, Endnote can import RIS files from the web — but Zotero does that too, and does it better. [↩]
- Right now, there is only one type of relation. In the future, a more complete set of relations will be added, e.g. ‘cites X’ (and its reverse ‘is cited by X’), ‘is a chapter of X’, ‘reviews X’ (more info). [↩]