Although the internet has made it easier than ever to access research materials, it has left some of us struggling to keep on top of them all. I’m nearing the end of my thesis and will probably end up with around 1,200 references, some of which I’ll also need to use in journal articles, conference papers and books. Being blessed with the memory capacity of a ZX81, I find it impossible to remember what I’ve read without some system for recording it. It’s so frustrating to get part-way through a book, only to realise that it’s depressingly familiar. Fortunately, five years ago I discovered a tool that made my life much easier.
Zotero is a free, open-source tool for managing bibliographic data and research material. The interface is a little bit like iTunes and you can think of it as your personal digital library.
It is available as a plugin for the Firefox browser or as a standalone version that works with Chrome and Safari.
Once installed, Zotero lurks in the background and detects when you are viewing a webpage that contains bibliographic information, such as a library catalogue record. The details can be saved with one click (including PDFs as attachments). You can then add tags and notes and also organise your items into folders. The plugins for Word and OpenOffice allows to easily cite your references in your documents and also create bibliographies with a few keystrokes.
When you download Zotero, you’ll be prompted to create a login. This then allows you to access your library across multiple devices, including a smartphone. Your data is also backed up to the Zotero server, giving you extra security.
One of my favourite features is the ability to share my Zotero folders with other users. This is very useful for collaborative projects and also if you need to provide a reading list for a class or workshop.
There are a few alternatives to Zotero. EndNote is probably the closest in terms of functionality, but many people find it much more difficult to use. It also costs around £80 for an individual license. Mendeley is very popular among the scientific community, mainly because it allows users to collaboratively annotate research papers. Although the interface is very intuitive, the Word plugin is inferior to Zotero’s. Some people are moving away from Mendeley since it was purchased by Elsevier, fearing that they will make sweeping changes.
Most people can learn the basics of Zotero within 30 minutes, and use it proficiently in under an hour. The Zotero website includes many tutorials, screencasts and links to other resources. If you’re affiliated with a university then they might offer a workshop or demonstration (if they don’t, you might want to suggest that I run one for them!)
If you like learning by yourself, you might find my quickstart guide (PDF) helpful.
Please do let me know how you get on, or if you have found a better tool.
Find out lots more in my ebook How to Manage References with Zotero.