What is Zotero?
Curious about Zotero after hearing of it from a teacher, librarian, or fellow student? Wondering how Zotero can be useful to you, and whether it’s worth a look?
Zotero is a reference manager, designed to help you with your scholarly research. Zotero makes it easy to:
- collect information about primary and secondary sources, such as journal articles, books, interviews, letter, maps, and movies. For a journal article, this information can include the article’s title, its authors, the journal (and journal issue) in which the article appeared, the article’s page numbers, its DOI, et cetera. You can often have Zotero save all information of a source (its metadata) with a single click.
- catalog digital copies of sources. For example, you can save full-text PDFs of journal articles, audio and video recordings, and scans in Zotero, and link these files to their descriptions.
- organize these sources and their descriptions using tags, collections, and saved searches.
- keep your Zotero library synchronised between your computers, using Zotero Sync.
- share your research privately or publically, and collaborate with others, using Zotero Groups.
- add references to these sources in your writing. Zotero supports thousands of citations styles, and comes with plugins for Word and LibreOffice.
Zotero is not the only reference manager on the market. Is Zotero the best choice for you? Do you even need a reference manager?
The Case for using a Reference Manager
As with most software, there is a learning curve for reference managers. For small projects, like writing a single paper, you probably can do without one. However, even early on in your career it’s worth it to invest some time exploring their use. Knowing how to use reference managers is an important skill for any researcher. Most reference managers can:
- save you time
- quickly save source metadata to your reference manager.
- if you cite the same sources multiple times, you only have to check the metadata once.
- easily create citations and bibliographies from the sources in your reference manager library.
- switch citation styles in your manuscripts with a few clicks.
- reduce the amount of errors in your work
- take advantage of automatic cite numbering and disambiguation.
- keep you organized
- easily keep track of hundreds or even thousands of sources
- have your reference manager synchronise among your devices
- with your source metadata stored in a single location, backing up is easy
- make it easy to collaborate with others
- share the metadata of your sources
Zotero versus the Competition
There are quite a few reference managers on the market, so what makes Zotero special? As long-time Zotero users, we might be biased, but we think Zotero has the following important advantages:
- free. It’s hard to resist free. Zotero only charges for online file storage. You can sync an unlimited amount of source metadata, and you get 300 MB of free online file storage space (e.g. for PDFs).
- non-profit. Zotero originates at George Mason University, and is mainly financed by academic grants and file storage subscriptions fees. It has a small but sustainable development team, and is governed by the non-profit Corporation for Digital Scholarship. In contrast, many other reference managers are owned by large corporations (such as commercial scientific publishers) whose interests don’t always align with those of the scholarly community.
- open source. Zotero is fully open source, and benefits from all its advantages: if the current developers ever stop working on Zotero, third parties can relatively easily step in. The project attracts power users and developers that contribute bug fixes and new features. You can be sure that Zotero will always be free, and that you will always be able to access your data.
- popular. Zotero is one of the most popular reference managers, and there is a large and vibrant user community.
- active forums. Zotero has busy online forums with first-class support. With developers and power users scattered over the globe, questions are often answered in hours, if not minutes.
- best-in-class citation style support. Zotero was the first product to adopt the Citation Style Language (CSL), which now has become the standard for most newer reference manager software. Most CSL-developers are Zotero users, and the CSL support of Zotero is by far the most thoroughly tested.
For an extensive comparison between reference managers, see the … Wikipedia page.
Our Target Audience for this Guide
We wrote this guide for new users, for who we offer a gentle introduction to Zotero, as well as for existing users, who can use it as a resource to learn about all the features Zotero has to offer. In particular, we hope to make it easy to learn about new features soon after they become available. By making the text of the guide freely available, and offering the guide in many formats, we hope to reach a wide audience.