Review of Zotero, An Invaluable Reference Manager

The personal research assistant that I wish I had discovered sooner.

Mahir Nichani
Apr 4, 2016 · 4 min read
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Citation Needed” by dan4th is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Organizing and citing my sources has always been the most painful part of any assignments that I’ve ever done which involve research. Today, I tried Zotero, a program that I hoped would alleviate some of the suffering that these tasks bring every time I’m working on a research paper or presentation. Zotero is a free, open-source reference management tool produced by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. It’s like a digital research assistant that allows you to collect your research sources directly from your browser, organize them so that they are readily available when needed, attach files such as images and notes to them, and easily cite them in your papers. It’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux, as are the browser plugins that accompany it. For users on the go, Zotero’s mobile solutions include a mobile website and several third-party apps.

Getting Zotero set up on my computer was simple and stress-free. Clicking the big Download Now button on the program’s homepage showed me two options: Zotero for Firefox and Zotero Standalone. Zotero for Firefox is a plugin that allows you to manage your research through Zotero without ever leaving the browser; Zotero Standalone runs as a desktop application with browser extensions for Chrome, Safari or Firefox. Since I use Chrome, I went with Zotero Standalone. With a few easy clicks, I downloaded and installed the Zotero Standalone desktop client and the Zotero Chrome extension. Then I was able to register for a free Zotero account from the program’s website, and easily connect it to Zotero Standalone in the desktop program’s Preferences window. Using a Zotero account allows you to sync your research information to Zotero’s online service, so that you can access your Zotero library and keep it up-to-date on the web or on other devices. Zotero includes 300MB of free file storage online, and offers additional storage tiers for purchase.

My experience with using Zotero was just as straightforward as my experience setting it up. Once I was on a website that I wanted to save to my Zotero library, all I had to do was click on the Zotero icon in my browser’s address bar. The program automatically stored the page’s URL, a snapshot of what it looked like when it was saved, and information such as its title, author, date and publication. Once the references were added to my library, I could edit the information gathered about each source, and also add notes for the sources. A neat feature that I noticed is that the Zotero icon in my browser would change depending on what website I was on, to indicate whether the item was a blog post, web page, journal article, etc. And if I clicked the Zotero icon while viewing a page with multiple search results, I could easily select multiple items from the page to add to my library at once. Aside from adding references through the browser, I also had the option to manually add references using the desktop program. These references included things like books and journal articles, but also files from my computer, such as PDFs, which could be attached to their corresponding citations in the library. One drawback that I noticed in Zotero is that it doesn’t have a function for annotating PDFs like other reference managers such as EndNote and Mendeley do. So, PDFs must be annotated with a different program before being added into the library, and must be re-added whenever there are changes to them.

When I installed Zotero Standalone, a Zotero add-in was also automatically incorporated into Microsoft Word (LibreOffice and are also supported). With this add-in, I could quickly insert and edit in-text citations and bibliographies using the information that Zotero had on my sources, without ever leaving Word. Zotero automatically updates periodically so that it is able to support new types of online sources and citations.

The two main organization options for items in a Zotero library are “collections” and “tags”. The icon for a collection looks like the folder icon that we’re all familiar with, but a collection works more like a playlist on iTunes than a folder on a computer, because items from the main library can be added to multiple collections without being duplicated. This is very useful for when the same item is relevant to multiple topics of research. Tags are the other main organization option in Zotero, and they are like keywords that can be added to any item. You can input tags into the program’s search function in order to find references that have been tagged with certain words. Both of these organization options seem effective, but an important distinction that Zotero’s Collections and Tags support page mentions is that “tags are portable, but collections are not: copying individual items between Zotero libraries will transfer their tags, but not their collection placements.”

As a whole, I am satisfied with how organized Zotero was and how simple it made tasks that I used to dread. Zotero offers many other features in addition to those mentioned in this review, such as group libraries that allow collaboration between peers, the ability to import/export libraries with EndNote, the ability to search Google Scholar for citation information on PDFs, and more. However, I think that just the main features discussed above are enough to make Zotero an invaluable tool for anyone conducting research for any type of project or assignment. Zotero is easy-to-use, and has many more free features (aka all of its features) than tools that I — and I’m sure many other students — previously used, such as EasyBib or NoodleTools. I would highly encourage any student to give Zotero a try. I know that I will definitely be using it throughout my college career.

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