Michelle P. Green, MA, MLIS
Instructional Services Librarian
Health Sciences Library and Informatics Center
University of New Mexico
Zotero is a free and open-source citation management tool that offers a way to manage citations and research in a simple and easy to use manner. This resource is fitting for anyone who accesses, conducts, or collects research, from students to educators to researchers. While tailored to academics and researchers, Zotero serves the needs of other populations as well.
Zotero originated from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Individuals there collaborated with the Corporation for Digital Scholarship, The Institute of Museum and Library Science, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded the project.
Zotero’s primary purpose is to help researchers of all types collect, organize, and access a variety of resources. It also assists with the writing process, providing a Microsoft Word plugin (for Mac-based Word, as well) that allows users to insert citations from Zotero without exiting a document. Users also can make a bibliography from those sources in just a couple of quick steps.
Users download Zotero from www.zotero.org. It installs like a typical software program, leaving an icon on your desktop. It comes with an extension for a preferred browser (Firefox, Chrome, or Safari), which allows it to operate through the browser as the user searches databases. The Word plugin comes bundled in the download. However, it is important to note Zotero recently debuted its 5.0 version, which discontinues the Firefox-embedded version many people use. Visit Zotero’s website for more information on the reasons.
Citations can be added manually or with the click of a button. When Zotero is downloaded, it uses the extension to create a button in the chosen browser. It adapts to the type of resource it detects in that browser. Simply click the button and the source appears in the selected Zotero folder.
While Zotero is a citation manager, and so does not have a search engine, it has a resource search function. As the volume of sources grows, the user is able to search easily through their citations by using a small search bar at the top of the middle pane. One can also search by applying tags to their articles and resources, then searching for anything with a certain tag.
Zotero has some outstanding features. Foremost, it is free. Another attractive feature is Zotero’s ability to detect and grab sources from the browser. Users do not have to distinguish the source type and, most of the time, do not have to enter the metadata, unless the program is unable to find the information. Users can also create groups, adjust the privacy settings, and invite others, allowing them to collaborate on research. The groups and all documents are visible in the left-hand pane of the Zotero interface.
A particularly prominent aspect of Zotero is its open source status and adaptability. While far from perfected, this program allows for grassroots development and contributions from code-savvy users. Less savvy users will appreciate its user-friendliness. It is my experience that learners are able to use, at minimum, the basic features after a one-hour consultation or training session.
Zotero is not without flaws. Two minor changes could provide a wealth of additional benefits to users. First, ease of access would be improved if the various icons (such as those to add a new collection, access preferences, or add a resource manually) were larger by default, or at least capable of enlargement in the settings. In addition to being a problem for those with vision impairment, this flaw makes it more difficult to demonstrate Zotero’s usage and features in a classroom setting. Second, while users get 300MB of free storage space, this is often quickly filled and more storage comes with costs. While the prices are reasonable, users would appreciate increased free storage space.
With that said, Zotero has more strengths than weaknesses, which is desirable in a citation management program. Its simple interface is more user friendly than other citation managers. It contains hundreds, if not thousands, of citation styles from which to choose. Finally, users can directly improve the product through submission of code and/or participation in the forums or communicating with the developers.
Zotero does not operate under a licensing model. It is free to share, download, and use as desired. Individuals can install it on their computer or an entire organization could have it installed in all owned computers. Either option uses the same process.
It is highly recommended users sign up for a Zotero account to take advantage of the account synchronizing properties and to enable use of Zotero without downloading the application.
Those mostly likely to benefit from Zotero are users associated with a research or academic organization. Learners appreciate the fact that they can use it long after they have left their educational institution. Anyone who needs to collect and organize resources would find Zotero useful.
In an era of tightening budgets for universities and libraries, Zotero is a convenient option. While it does not have the bells and whistles of other citation manager programs, it is no less professional or useful. Zotero is unique, in part, because users can actively participate in the improvement of the product, whether through code submission or participation in the forums. Most researchers, especially those who are technical whizzes, prefer something uncomplicated and easy to use, and Zotero is just right for them.