Doing Academic Research with Zotero

When I started the initial work for my dissertation in American Studies, I had played around with different ways of collecting and organizing my sources.  I tried out RefWorks, since William & Mary has a subscription, but didn’t stick with it, and I tried the old-fashioned dumping everything into a Microsoft Word document (that didn’t last long), and the even more old-fashioned use of analogue notecards and a pen (the cards kept disappearing).  I had also used Zotero off and on.  Zotero was the tool that I kept returning to, and what I use now for my dissertation research.  Although I can’t say whether or not it would work for everyone (I do know a lot of other people who choose to use RefWorks instead, for example), but I like it, and below I’ll tell you about what it is and how I use it.

What is Zotero?

Here’s an example of my Zotero Library from the web application version.

Zotero is a free software designed by and for academics for (almost) all of your research needs. It works for collecting and organizing sources, taking notes on sources, automating in-text citations, and creating bibliographies.  It’s really an all-purpose researching tool, and it’s worked well for me in all of these instances. It also has source collection sharing capabilities – you can create groups for collaborating on gathering sources with other Zotero users, but I haven’t used it, and can’t speak to how well it works. Below I’ll cover some of the ways that I use Zotero, and what I like and what I don’t like about it.

Back when I first started using Zotero, it was only an extension for Firefox, and I couldn’t use it with my Chrome browser (which I prefer).  Now there’s a Chrome extension as well as a desktop application and an in-browser application (all of which you can sync with a single Zotero library).  I should also note that Zotero’s developers are constantly maintaining and improving it over at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. And – what I always consider a good reason to use a particular technological tool – the documentation is substantial and there’s an active user base of helpful people on the forum.

Collecting Sources

Here’s the window that appears when you click on the folder icon in your browser’s address bar. I’ve done a search for “cyborgs” on Swem’s catalogue, and Zotero lets me select the sources I’d like in my library.

The ease of collecting sources from your Web browser is one of Zotero’s strengths, and the reason why I kept going back to Zotero even when something about it had annoyed me.  Say I’m looking around for books for my dissertation – if I navigate to a webpage that has content that Zotero recognizes as a source, a little icon will appear in my address bar at the top of my browser.  It’ll either be a little folder, or a different icon, depending on the type of source (a little book for books, a text page for an article, etc).  If it’s a folder, that means that Zotero has recognized more than one source on that page, and if it’s one of the other icons, it’s just one source.  Clicking on that icon will add the source to your library.  In the case of a folder, a window will open asking you to check which sources you would like to add to your library.  It is really that simple, and that alone saves me a lot of annoyance when I just want to collect my sources quickly and easily.  Zotero recognizes sources from lots of different websites, and the list grows with every version that the developers release.  The list of sites and kinds of sites that Zotero recognizes sources on is quite long, but it includes Amazon.com, many libraries, JSTOR and other electronic journals, and many others.

Organizing Sources

So, now that I have a bunch of sources from searching various databases, what do I do with them?  With the Firefox extension, you can click on the Zotero icon in the bottom right corner of your browser window, the desktop application, or the web application to edit your library.  Within your library, which houses all of your sources, you can create folders and sub-folders, as well as add tags to your sources, and search them.  While in your library, you can also double-check that Zotero didn’t do something strange to the formatting of your sources.  For example, sometimes it will import sources with all-caps titles or with the author’s first and last name reversed.  These translation errors still happen, but they are far less frequent than they used to be.  And I don’t mind looking over my sources due to how great the next function of Zotero is…

Citing Sources

I know, I know, I just wrote a post about how great Scrivener is for word processing instead of Microsoft Word.  But one thing Scrivener doesn’t do is automatically insert and update your citations with Zotero like Word can.  This feature is amazing and, if you’re willing to put in a little time up front, it can save you a lot of time and busywork later (at least it did for me!). You just need to download the appropriate Word plugin for your operating system and version of Word.  Then, when working on a document in word, when you want to insert a citation, you go to the appropriate menu (the scripts menu for Word 2011 on a Mac) and there is a Zotero option.  Select that, and then you search for the name of the source, select it, click on the name, then enter the page number, and it creates a citation in the format that you’ve chosen for the document (I’ve used both MLA and Chicago with success, but it has many other options as well).  If you rearrange paragraphs with citations in them, you can “Refresh” your citations in the Zotero sub-menu and it will update all of your citations.  When you finish your document, you can go to the Zotero sub-menu and create a bibliography from all of the sources that you’ve cited throughout the document.  For me, although it means managing and inserting all of my sources with Zotero, and making sure that they’re formatted correctly, it is very much worth it for the automated citations and bibliography.

Creating Bibliographies

If you don’t want to mess with citing sources within Word with Zotero, that’s okay.  I didn’t try it for a long time, just because it seemed like a hassle to learn how to do, and usually if I’m citing things, I’m deep into writing and feel too busy to learn new technology tools.  But, even if you don’t use Zotero for citing your sources, and you type them up yourself, you can still use Zotero to automatically create bibliographies from any sources that you want.  Within your Zotero library, you can select folders, individual items, and/or groups of items and create a bibliography from them by either control-clicking (right-clicking on a Windows computer) or dragging and dropping them into a text field.  Just like that, and you can have it formatted in one of over 2000 citation styles.  This works great when creating categories of sources.  If you’ve been tagging your sources, you can search for that tag, then select all the sources in your library with that tag

A Caveat

The most frequent complaint I hear about Zotero when I tell people that I use it is that it has a steep learning curve.  It does take a little while to get used to Zotero and to figure out all of the things that you need to do to manage your library.  Using it can mean shifting an already entrenched process for collecting and organizing your sources, and while working on a project, you might not have the time or mental energy to want to do that. It does sometimes feel like Zotero takes a lot of effort to maintain, and can get overly-complicated. But ultimately, to get started it’s quite simple to install the Zotero extension for your browser, search for sources, then click the icon in the address bar to save them.

If you’re happy with how you manage your sources now, and none of the above features I’ve mentioned are enticing, then it’s definitely not worth learning Zotero.  But, if you’re intrigued, I suggest you check it out, but perhaps use it for a relatively small writing/ research project first. I hope this post has helped you think about whether or not you’d like to test out Zotero – please share your Zotero experiences or questions in the comments!

If you’re interested in reading about organizing your research, you might find the following posts helpful: Organizing Your Research with DEVONthink Pro Office, Comparing Research Managers — Zotero, Evernote, and DEVONthink Pro Office, and Five Reasons to Use Evernote for Academic Research.

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.