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A Review of Zotero, the free, Firefox extension to assist in collecting, managing and citing research sources

By Stacy Bruss, Published on July 24, 2008

As a soon-to-be library student, I have collected interesting articles and web sites that I think will help me while in school. However, I was looking at my disparate collection of paper copies of journal articles, PDF copies of journal articles and web sites that I had saved on my computer, and web site links that I had in my web browser's favorites folder and wondering how I was going to organize all of this information so that I could retrieve it when needed. That's when I found a Firefox extension called Zotero.

According to their web site, "Zotero is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. It lives right where you do your work — in the web browser itself." So far, I've used it for collecting and managing research sources, but I explored the citation features as well.

Collecting Research Sources

The first and best tool of collecting research sources from Zotero is automatic citation capture. Automatic citation capture is fully supported for almost 400 web sites, including sites like Amazon, electronic journal databases, and OPACs. An icon simply shows up at the end of a web site's URL when a citation can be automatically captured. When there are multiple citations that can be captured, say from search results of an OPAC, you can choose specific citations to capture, or capture them all.


Capturing an article citation from ScienceDirect

Web sites can be collected as research sources in one of two ways. When bookmarking a site for future reference use, the URL alone is saved. However, when using specific information (citing) from a web page, Zotero saves a "snapshot" of the web page to archive the current view. All applicable metadata information is automatically saved as citation information. Highlighting and "sticky notes" may be added to the saved web page.

Bibliographic records may be imported from other reference tools (EndNote, etc.) in five common formats, including BibTeX. Unfortunately, Zotero cannot currently import items from bibliographies in plain text documents. Lastly, research sources can be manually collected in Zotero.

A link to a file on your computer, a copy of a file on your computer, a link to a web site, or an archived copy of a web site can then be attached to any source. More than one file/link can be associated with a research source. For all research sources, unlimited notes may also be added to the source's record.

Managing Research Sources

In my opinion, managing research sources is where Zotero really shines. Zotero allows you to create collections, browse and filter by tags and bibliographic fields, and do full-text searches. Reports of sources can also be assembled.

The collections interface in Zotero is very similar to the popular Apple iTunes. A main collection folder, "My Library," is where all collected resources reside. Specific collection folders and subcollection folders are then used to manage sources. What's great is that a source can be in more than one folder. Further, "smart collections" use search criteria and automatically update as new sources that fulfill the criteria are added in Zotero.

Similar to popular bookmark managers like del.i.cious, unlimited tags can be added to each reference source for easy grouping of similar subject matter. For automatic citation captures, if subject metadata is available, those subject headings will automatically be added as tags. Tags can also be manually added. The main Zotero window has a tag selector, to filter sources by tags. These tags are also included in searches.


Filtering sources by tags; also collections, subcollections, and "smart collections"

Simple searches are done from the main Zotero screen, which looks at the full text in all fields, notes, and tags. Advanced search (again, looking very much like Apple's iTunes) is done in a separate window, selecting specialized criteria. As mentioned previously, advanced search criteria may be saved as a "smart collection".

Different from a bibliography, sources can be assembled as a report. This report shows basic bibliographic information and all notes associated with the source. This report format would be great when trying to write a paper or study for exams.

Citing Research Sources

Zotero provides excellent integration for adding citations to documents, web sites, and blogs. Zotero comes with 10 of the most popular citation formats, but about 50 more may be downloaded, with new formats created frequently. Zotero can produce a bibliography, in rich-text format or HTML, of any sources you select. Citations may be inserted into documents, web sites, and blogs by simply dragging and dropping. But one of the best features is an add-on that Zotero provides for both OpenOffice.org Writer and Microsoft Word. This tool inserts citations in the text of documents, makes global changes to citation formats if needed, and creates a bibliography at the end with all of the citations in the document.

Zotero Support

Zotero's web site has screencasts and clear, written documentation on the use of Zotero. There is also an active forum to ask questions about Zotero use and for troubleshooting. Unfortunately, there is not a direct way to contact the Zotero staff, but the staff checks the forum frequently and quickly replies to questions/problems posted in the forum.

Conclusions

Zotero is a powerful, yet flexible, tool for collecting, managing, and implementing research sources. Professionals, students, and academia alike would find this to be a great resource. Even a library can use a shared library on a network drive as a document management tool or use Zotero to quickly develop bibliographies for patrons.