On its website, Zotero is described "is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources." Even though it’s been out for a while, I somehow didn’t run into it until a few months ago. I’ve used it for a while and have switched over from using Endnote because I like it that much, below is my review.
Here is my two sentence review of Zotero: If Evernote and Endnote had sex and made a baby, Zotero would be that baby. It would then outdo its parents in so many ways.
If that is all you need to know, go ahead and try it out, it's free for crying out loud. Otherwise, here is my longer review organized in list form of my opinions of its features. The part about Evernote in my two sentence review is about how Zotero can do more than just manage research articles, but I can’t write about everything (that’s what it’s website is for) so this review will just be about using Zotero to manage research papers.
1. Autofind - This is perhaps the coolest thing about Zotero. Zotero recognizes when you're looking at a summary, abstract, citation, and/or list of articles and puts a little icon next to the url. When you click on the icon, it automatically stores the citation information for that article in the database. My experiences with this feature have been pretty damn good. I'm in the natural sciences, so results in other fields may vary, but in the databases that I use, and most surprisingly at the vast majority of individual journals' websites, Zotero knows when I'm looking at an article. It isn't perfect though, and it can be annoying when you're cruising along and just want to store a citation and move on and Zotero doesn't recognize it. I've had this problem when checking who cited a given paper in Web of Science. But overall, this is a positive feature and a hell of a lot faster than exporting to Endnote. Which leads me to...
2. It Lives in Firefox - An absolute plus. Firefox is where I find articles, often look at the pdf of articles I've found, find other articles related to a given article I'm reading, so it only makes sense that my database of papers also live in Firefox. When you click on the icon in the address bar, the whole world doesn’t stop for Endnote to startup and you don’t have to click 5 other screens to allow Firefox to download the file, pick the library, etc. It just pulls up a little “Saving item…” tab in the bottom corner of the Firefox window, does its business, and removes the tab. The whole process, when working properly (which is the vast majority of the time) takes maybe 10 seconds. You do have to be careful about which folder you left highlighted in Zotero, because it will automatically save citations into that folder. I find this more of a plus than a minus though, because often I’m searching for a bunch of articles about one research subject, so I can just keep clicking the icon in the address bar and Zotero will keep saving citations right where I want them.
3. Folders – Does Endnote have folders inside a given library? I don’t think so, but maybe. Is it useful and fast enough for me to have known about? Evidently not. The folders and subfolders list is extremely useful and a breath of fresh air. Research papers aren’t emails. Throwing them all in one folder and searching for them is often not the best way to find what you’re looking for. You also seem to be able to place a given entry into more than one folder, which rocks. Drag, drop, drag, drop. Ooooh, it’s easy.
4. Tags – If folders aren’t enough for finding the articles you want, you can also add tags to papers, which work exactly like Gmail labels. Personally, I find that since I can place an entry into multiple folders already, tags aren’t particularly useful. But I use this occasionally. For example, when I’m doing a search on a given subject, it’s often convenient to keep adding entries to the list, but mark the especially pertinent ones as “to read” via a tag and go back and make sure I read all of them later. I wish I had learned this trick earlier because it’s one hell of a time saver. I’ll write more about this and other opinions about doing literature searches later.
5. Search as you type – Awesome. The search function of Zotero is so convenient. It’s fast, and it’s built, unobtrusively, right into the little screen. Endnote’s search worked well for me too, but it brought up a second screen and results didn’t show up as I typed; minor details, I know, but I’m just listing what I like here.
6. Notes – Oooh this is convenient. I’ve started to keep all of my notes and summaries of papers in Zotero in the notes option. It’s right there with the paper always. Besides actually taking notes on the paper though, the fact that the notes are included in searches means that I can type a list of “keywords” or random ways that I remember a paper into the notes to increase my chances of finding it later. Why not use tags or folders for this? Because often the ways I, and many others, remember a paper is through odd characteristics like: “that one paper by those British guys”, “the one with the blah blah technique in it”, “the one with that blah blah figure in it”, etc. I don’t want those random thoughts about every paper to have their own folder or tag, that’s ridiculous.
7. Importing from Endnote – So, if you’ve been using another reference software, how easy is it to switch? Good question. I used Endnote, so that’s all I can talk about. I went through their method of importing my references from Endnote and it worked with one weird quirk: it turned all kinds of Endnote keywords of some sort into tags, which is really annoying. So now I have all these tags that I don’t want and I don’t know how to delete all tags at one time, so I’m just not using tags much, eh, oh well. Otherwise the papers seem to enter just fine.
8. Citing as you type – I haven’t written a paper using Zotero for citations and don’t plan on it because my colleagues, and most importantly, my adviser, don’t use Zotero, so collaborating on a paper requires that I still use Endnote for that. I don’t forsee that being a problem though because the papers we write have maybe 20 or so citations max, and I can export them as RIS and make a little Endnote library for that particular paper. Maybe I’ll use Zotero for citations in a paper when I have to write the dissertation. I’ll let you know.
9. Free – Endnote costs money, this doesn’t. How do you beat that?
10. Open Source – Zotero is actively being worked on, which means bugs and kinks, and compatibility issues are constantly being fixed. This is a huge plus. Think Google; it responds to users’ requests by constantly improving its products, that’s so useful.
Overall, I’m quite happy with Zotero, and I find myself saving more papers than before and doing literature searches a lot faster and a lot more efficiently than before, which is a plus. Recommended.What do you think of Zotero? Share your thoughts!