Zotero: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s … Citation Management Software!

Zotero. It sounds like the name of the superhero (or perhaps supervillain) in an indie comic. But we keep having workshops about it at the library, so it must be… What?

Zotero is a piece of software intended to help you manage citations. That might not sound like much, but in practice it’s a portable, pluggable, online and on-your-computer tool that can keep track of all your research. It will collect information about your reading while you research. It can even function as a place to store your research. And at the end of everything, it will spit out a bibliography in any one of a number of formats.

Imagine this: You’re reading a journal article you found in a database. In the bibliography of that article, you find another article that looks interesting, so you follow the link to that, and indeed, it’s just what you’ve been looking for. That article leads you to a third, and a fourth, and a government web page hosting a whole set of interesting documents. It’s a common enough scenario in scholarly research—but it can end in a few different ways. One possibility is, you leave the computer and a day later you can’t remember what the article titles were, or the name of the agency with all that information. Or perhaps you wrote down the titles and authors on a piece of paper, which is… somewhere. Maybe you bookmarked the articles; maybe you can find those bookmarks among your 6,158 bookmarks that you keep meaning to put into folders, or maybe you can’t.

Or you could have been running Zotero as you read. When you found the interesting article, you clicked on the little icon in your browser, which automatically saved not only the location of the article but its bibliographic information, down to the page number and the DOI. If the article was a PDF, you were able to save the PDF itself in your Zotero account and you’ll be able to access it anywhere. The web site’s URL was saved along with its type, abstract, and date of accession. Your resource list is now searchable, sharable, taggable, annotatable, and exportable, and it can be organized by author, by title, by date, by type, into folders, and on and on.

It sounds like magic, and it is pretty wonderful—but there is a learning curve, which is why we run workshops on using the software. Check the events page for a workshop you can attend and grab a spot; the next one will be September 24 at 6:30 pm.

Zotero is far from the only citation manager out there. If you don’t like the Zotero interface, or it doesn’t play well with the browser/word processor/operating system you use, there are many other choices: RefWorks, Mendeley, EndNote, Bookends (for Mac), BibDesk (open source), Paperpile… Wikipedia has a handy comparison chart of these and several other options; there’s another good guide maintained by the University of Toronto.

With great research comes great organizational challenge. Choose whatever manager you like, but the sooner you start using one, the easier your final scramble toward bibliography will be.

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.