Why you should use Zotero

This post is based on a talk I gave to Information Services staff at the Templeman Library in March 2019.

Umberto Eco, in his 1977 How to Write a Thesis, spends over twenty pages outlining the various ways in which you should cite works pertinent to your research on index cards. While there is still a need to understand many of the principles that Eco outlines there is now a variety of software which should ease the practicalities of managing your references.

In this post I want to cover a few reasons why, if you are planning to use reference management software, you should choose Zotero. Most of these are practical. I worked part time in the University of Kent library services for over five years. Most of what follows is based on my experience of attempting to get various reference management software packages working for students in this time and my own usage of Zotero, Mendeley, and Endnotes for my personal research.

Why you should use Zotero

It’s free and not for-profit

Zotero is free, open source, and not for profit. It was built by and for historians and was funded by a series of grants from research organisations in the United States. You can pay a subscription for file storage but it is easy to use your current cloud storage. EndNote is owned by Clarivate (who also produce Web of Science) and Mendeley is owned by Elsevier. Both are for-profit. Elsevier in particular are noted for the high prices they charge universities which has led to a termination of subscriptions by the University of California system, Norway, Germany, and Sweden. Mendeley, once taken over by Elsevier, began to encrypt any data stored by its users which made moving between platforms difficult. Mendeley claimed it was intended to improve security over their data but many saw it as a dishonest move to lock users into the platform. In short Mendeley is part of the publishing-cor-profit ecosystem which penalises universities, students, and academics while making vast profits.

I am also never using EndNote again after it began deleting an essay before my eyes during my masters year.

It can be accessed through a variety of platforms

  • You can install and use Zotero without an account – although if you want to back up your data you will need to make one. With an account you can seamlessly use Zotero across multiple machines.

  • If you have an account you can use the Zotero website to manage and export references. This is much more clunky than the installed software.

  • A great deal of the Zotero functionality is available through ZoteroBib. This won’t preserve your references beyond your session although you can export via a very nifty sharing system. I imagine this is more useful for researchers working on one-off projects or undergraduates.

  • The desktop software is works with macOS, Windows, Linux, and integrates with Google Docs, Word, LibreOffice, and Open Office.

It’s easy to add references to your library

  • References can be added through ISBN or DOI and apparently PMID or arXiv but I have no idea what they are.

  • You can even scan a barcode from a book on your phone and it will appear in your library.

  • It integrates very well with most academic search platforms because you can add via BibTeX, RIS, or RDF. Most major database searches allow you to mass export your results in these formats.

  • The browser plug in works quite well with some platforms but will also allow you to capture and add a webpage. I find this especially useful for archive catalogues so I can create and sort a list of items to look at before my visit. It also integrates really well with Google Scholar.

* You can simply drag and drop PDFs into Zotero and it will usually find the reference information. I advise against this though as it takes up some of your free Zotero cloud storage (300mb free. You can pay $20 a month for 2GB). I add via another method and use a cloud based solution (Google Drive but other solutions would work as well) to store the PDFs.

  • It is also pretty easy, and sometimes necessary, to add references manually. While it is time consuming in comparison to the other methods it is still quicker than writing all of your footnotes by hand.

Using in Word

  • Within word you simply click add reference and begin by typing any element of the author or work you wish to cite. You can select the particular work you wish press enter and then type the required page number.

  • If for some reason any of these methods introduces an incorrect reference it is easy to update even if you have added it to a document. You simply amend the reference within Zotero and tell the word plug-in to refresh and it will automatically change.

  • These references will automatically update if you change referencing style or cut and paste within the same document or between documents.

  • Once you have completed your writing you can compile a bibliography in a single click.

As a research tool

The first stage for me is to trawl library and archive searches and different online collections. From this I build up a large folder or sub-folder within Zotero. I can then go through each article and make notes within Zotero as a first pass to establish what is relevant or useful. It’s possible to tag each work based on different criteria. Some people find this useful but it’s not a feature I have used. References can be exported to a spreadsheet if you prefer to manage them this way. I have done this with some references from The National Archives catalogue as a way of quickly creating a dataset of court records. You can also export the notes, tags, and other information in a wide range of formats, including CSV. Zotero can subscribe to journal feeds and automatically updates when new issues are released. From these you can add them to your library with a single click or go straight to read the online article. There is no need any more to sign up for reminder emails.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Zotero has changed the way I work. It has become part of my workflow and has saved me numerous hours writing references or bibliographies and updating them as I edit. It is literally the first step I take in any new research area. Most simply though it allows me to keep track of my reading and PDFs. Using the zotfile extension whenever I download a PDFs it is moved to a single folder and renamed according to standardised criteria which I determine. This folder is then backed up on Google Drive so I can access it from any device and is synced across my various machines. To set up a similar system for yourself see part two of this tutorial.

This covers most of the ways I use Zotero. Its remarkably easy and once you are up and running it will literally save you days of time if you are in a research-heavy position. You can save, search, and sort a huge number of references very quickly. I have nearly 2,000 references from the course of my teaching and PhD work and I use it every day.