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Why use Zotero?


Zotero is a powerful and adaptable tool for scholars and educators of all stripes. It can be whatever you need it to be, whether you are a student, a teacher, a researcher, or just someone looking for a better way to manage your data.

Its many features can be used in myriad combinations, tailored to particular fields and projects. Residing directly within your web browser, Zotero is central to the entire research process, allowing its users to pick and choose the features that are best-suited to their ends, merging them into a quick and efficient workflow. Let's run through some different examples of Zotero in action.

Third Party Apps + Zotero

The following is a list of third party applications that play nicely with Zotero.

What is it? User Group The Zotero link? More info Samples
Moodle Course management software educators You can feed items from your Zotero library into Moodle via a widget. This can help you organize bibliographies in a snap. Moodle.org
Libguide library software for organizing reading lists and bibliographies librarians Feed Zotero items into LibGuide using a libguide feed widget libguide.com
Wordpress A platform on which to run blogs and websites Anyone (educators, students, etc) A Wordpress plugin called Zotpress can feed in data from Zotero into your Wordpress site Wordpress.com,
Omeka A digital library software Anyone (educators, students, etc) A wrapper is available that takes data from Zotero and ports it into an Omeka digital library Omeka.org, Omeka.net, 'Exhibition magic with #Zotero and @Omeka' - http://bit.ly/kHhM6f

Getting Zotero Adopted at Your Institution

Zotero evangelists (Zotero's term for those who spread the good word) will regularly find themselves in the position of giving presentations on using Zotero in these different contexts. This document aims to provide you with ways of approaching each of these topics. Of course, it functions equally well as a quick user guide. There should be something useful here for everyone.

There are many different ways and many different places Zotero can be adopted at your institution. Please visit this page to learn how: Get it Adopted

Use Cases

Short Research paper

The research paper is, of course, the staple of a student's existence. As students progress through different degree-levels, the degree of complexity in their research papers increases. A high school research paper is a completely different animal from a doctoral dissertation, but Zotero deftly handles them and everything in between.

Let's say your audience is writing a five-page research paper with five works cited. Zotero's most basic features are likely all they'll need. “See it, Save it, Cite it”. The most obvious way for these students to go about conducting their research is to consult books from their school library. Zotero is compatible with most online catalogs, so you can show them how to use this capability to add items to their library. This can be done by saving selected items from a search or individual items.

Once the items are part of the student's Zotero library, they'll need to cite them. Explain how to set Zotero's default citation style in the Preference window's Export tab. At this point, the easiest way for them to create bibliographies would be to use Zotero's drag-and-drop functionality. Instruct them to simply select the items they wish to cite and drag those items into their word processor. The bibliography should appear, properly formatted with the style they selected earlier. The same can be achieved by using the appropriate keyboard shortcut to cut and paste the bibliography or by right-clicking the items and choosing “Create Bibliography from Selected Item(s)…”.

It's worth encouraging faculty whose students will be using Zotero to employ Smart Bibliographies. This simply means that their online lists of references will be easily readable by Zotero. This is simple to do. The following link should get both you and them started:


Major Research/Seminar Paper

When you get into the realm of writing a major research paper, it becomes more important to tailor your workflow to your field of study. Most serious research employs journal articles as important sources, but this is especially true for the sciences. Most journals are available as part of online databases and Zotero can save full articles and their associated metadata from a great many of them. In order to automatically save the full-text PDFs of articles available online, this feature must be enabled in the General tab of the Preferences window.

Users should know how to use the address bar icon to create new library items from online sources. It is important to distinguish between saving an item from metadata embedded on a webpage and saving a webpage itself. The former is done through the aforementioned address bar icon and the latter through the “Create New Item from Current Page” icon in the Zotero toolbar. Both are very useful, but not understanding the distinction can leave users confused.

While secondary sources are also of great import to the humanities, primary sources are much more important by comparison, perhaps even paramount. For this reason, manually creating items in Zotero is essential to humanities researchers. By clicking the New Item button in the Zotero toolbar, users can create a wide variety of items: artwork, letters, films, maps, manuscripts, and many more. Each has bibliographic fields appropriate to the item type, ensuring detailed and accurate citation in any of Zotero's many supported styles. Further, it is possible to attach any type of file to any library item, so it's simple to access photographs or scans of the original documents. There are many ways of accomplishing this, but the simplest way is via drag-and-drop.

Of increasing importance at this point is word processor integration. Zotero, by itself, can generate citations and bibliographies for you, but only in response to specific commands, and once they're created, any subsequent changes must be made by hand. The Word and OpenOffice plugins, on the other hand, keep track of citations from within your document. When citations are added through the plugin, the bibliographic style of the entire document can be changed on the fly. Further, bibliographies can be created with the click of a button, without any need to go back to the Zotero client and select all the sources you used. It's all done automatically. The longer your paper gets, the more sources you're likely to accumulate and the more essential the Zotero word processor plugins become.

Another element that becomes increasingly important is that of data backup. There are many options at your disposal, not least of which is using 2.0. However, the gold standard for backup is to archive the Zotero data directory periodically. This is pretty easy to find. Simply open the Zotero preferences window and click on the Advanced tab. In the Storage Location section, click on the “Show Data Directory” button. This will open the data directory in your file browser. Your options from here are nearly limitless. You can use some third-party software like Mozy to regularly backup your data. You can create a cron job to archive the folder and copy it to an external hard drive or network drive. You can burn the directory to DVD and store it in your freezer. Take your pick. If, for some reason, you lose your data, you can simply overwrite your data directory with the backed up copy and you'll be back in business.

Theses and Dissertations

A thesis paper is like a research paper, only much more so. For that reason, it should be apparent that the features explained in the previous section should be that much more important. Backup and the word processor plugins are both absolutely essential. Certainly, people have written theses and dissertations without Zotero, and continue to do so, but any systems used to duplicate its coordinative features consume a great deal of time and effort. Zotero streamlines the whole process and lets you devote more time to research and writing.

Zotero's advantages do not solely relate to coordination and logistics, however. When all your research materials reside in your Zotero library, you can uncover new information through the tags and search features. When importing items from certain sites, say, books from the Library of Congress, or photographs from Flickr, Zotero can automatically attach relevant tags supplied by the site. You can also add tags yourself, if you have a particular tag scheme you wish to implement, or there is some data you can use to link related items.

While tags add depth and complexity to the data at your disposal, even without them, the advanced search feature can help you glean new information from your library. Let's say you're studying literary criticism of Shakespeare's Hamlet throughout the 20th century. You could pull down all the articles so labeled from Lexis-Nexis within your timeframe, complete with abstracts. That should produce a fairly comprehensive collection. That's an awful lot of information to sift through, though. By conducting and saving searches for each decade, you can easily notice any gaps in your collection. This could mean either that your data for, say, the 1920s is not as complete as you would like or that literary criticism of Hamlet actually dropped off during that decade. It would be a simple matter to check these theories against other sources, and is useful information, either way. If you save your searches, it's a simple matter to monitor different elements of your library as it changes and grows, bringing important trends to the fore.

Since it resides directly in your browser, Zotero integrates itself with ease into your workflow. A great deal of scholarly research is conducted online and Zotero saves you the trouble of jumping from one program to another to store all your data. It simplifies and streamlines the research process from beginning to end.

An important thing to note is that Zotero's word processor plugins do not support the use of master documents. Each document is taken separately and a master bibliography cannot be created without pasting the full text of each document with citations into a single document. You can, of course, do this once, when your work is complete, and delete the document afterward if you have no further use for it.

Groups and Collaborative Projects

If you are part of a small group collaborating on a project, you can, using Zotero 2.0, create a Zotero group to share a library between the group members. This makes it easy to keep up on research each group member is conducting and sharing thoughts and ideas. Larger groups can integrate Zotero citations into collaborative websites, using COinS to create smart bibliographies that collaborators can easily import into their own Zotero library. Libraries or collections can be exported, complete with files, to a variety of different formats, allowing for easy sharing and importing of large amounts of data.

Teachers instructing students in the process of conducting research can evaluate their progress by having them generate Zotero reports of the sources they have compiled to that point.

With the API (add link), you are now able to feed in information, including formatted citations and bibliographies, from Zotero into many popular third party applications, including:

  • Moodle
  • Libguide
  • Wordpress

This functionality is useful for teachers and scholars wanting to provide dynamic and up to date bibliographies for students and anyone else.