Zotero Unmasked

Last Friday, I had the good fortune to attend a great introductory workshop on the Zotero citation management software put on by MLibrary’s very own Harold Tuckett.

‘Good fortune?’ you might protest, ‘To spend your Friday afternoon perfecting your personal bibliographic hygiene?’

Yea, verily.

What I learned may well save me untold hours of busy work and prevent me from unleashing a torrent of profanities at my Chicago Manual of Style that will be more happily directed elsewhere.

Before attending the workshop, I downloaded Zotero 5.0 and installed the relevant browser extension that enables you to pull citation data from the web. Another good thing to do to confirm that things are firing on all cylinders is to open Zotero, then open your word processor of choice (e.g. Word). You should see a new entry for ‘Zotero’ in your top-screen menu ribbon.

This is what will allow you to import magically auto-formatted citations into your papers with all the sleek power and grace of a footnote puma. Finally, I made a free online account to facilitate syncing and access to my citation library across multiple/public devices.  

Tuckett opened the workshop with his take on the top three things that a citation manager should do for you:

  • Provide a stable tracking system for organizing relevant academic literature over the long haul
  • Support other capabilities like robust search and the creation of custom metadata facets
  • Play nice with your word processor of choice

The key to understanding citation managers is that they operate on the founding principle that data content should be handled entirely separately from styling (a similar ethos to the division of labor between HTML and CSS in the world of web design). As such, you can think of the bibliographic citations you accumulate and organize in Zotero as kind of format-less until there is a need to make them conform to a certain citation style (e.g. Chicago, APA, MLA) for export.

Zotero is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux and perhaps its top ‘selling’ point is that it is fully functional in its free download form. You start incurring data storage charges if you exceed 2GB in your online account, but that’s the only type of fee you’ll see.

The basic activity Zotero supports is the management of a personal database consisting of ‘collections’ of citation records. In other words, it’s perfectly good for handling a single medium-to-involved research project, but where it really pays dividends is in managing multiple projects simultaneously or over time, especially if you plan to draw on certain literature for multiple projects. For example, if you are writing a series of papers on how the forensic methods of Sherlock Holmes were influenced by and, in turn, influenced Victorian criminological methods, you’d only need to import the Complete Sherlock Holmes once and that same record could live in multiple ‘collections’ within your library. In other words, each collection is not a ‘folder,’ but more like a tag or aggregation.

The software also allows you to assign your own extensive free-text ‘notes’ at the record level, as well as custom ‘tags’ that support optimized search. You can even download stylesheets that are specifically designed for annotated bibliographies, allowing you to save your own annotations in either the ‘Extra’ or ‘Abstract’ field and then export a fully formatted annotated bibliography, bada-bing bada-boom!

How do you get the records into Zotero in the first place, you ask?

Well, you can easily perform a single or batch import from a variety of online databases (e.g. MLibrary metadata records, Elsevier, ScienceDirect, ProQuest) using the Zotero browser extension. The extension pulls the relevant record(s) from whatever article record you have pulled up in your browser directly into a selected ‘collection’ within your open instance of Zotero, automatically filling all of the necessary fields and requiring just a cursory verification on your part to make sure nothing got funkified in the process.

Your online account and your saved library on your primary device are kept aligned via regular syncing, but since the connection depends on an internet connection, there can be lags between syncs. One of the most useful features of the online platform is that it lets collaborators set up ‘Group Libraries’ with varying levels of permissions (private, viewable but not editable, fully editable, etc.), allowing colleagues to work together smoothly on involved joint projects.

Perhaps one of the most powerful capabilities of Zotero is its ‘Saved Search’ functionality. This allows you to set up complex filter-like rules that not only apply to your current library but to all future imports as well. Think of it like an email filter-to-folder system that lets you automate which collections a new article or book record gets added to. ‘Wow!’ right?

Well, hopefully I have convinced you that Zotero is the bee’s knees.

If, however, I haven’t quite done that but I have convinced you that it might be worth learning more about citation managers in general, check out this great M-Research Guide on ‘Citation Management Options.’

If I didn’t even convince you of that, I hope I at least cleared the lowest bar of them all: convincing you that citation managers exist. They’re out there, like trash compactors, silently and uncomplainingly doing the thankless jobs that humans don’t want.