Zotero: A Great Research Tool

What Is Zotero?

If you're doing research for a high school project, a degree/diploma (especially thesis-related work), for journalistic purposes, etc., an excellent must-have and must-use tool is Zotero. Zotero is a Firefox Add-On helps you easily collect and organize on-line information you need to capture and remember details about (including the ability to properly cite it later) . Briefly, Zotero:

  • enables one to capture a web page as it looks at a certain point in time,
  • it allows one to highlight and annotate any captured (web) page,
  • it allows one to search any captured pages (web pages, PDFs with additional software installed, etc.),
  • it remembers all reference information (e.g., time & date of capture, URL, etc.),
  • it has the ability to capture information from Google Scholar and scholarly journal web sites complete with full bibliographical information,
  • it can copy-and-paste bibliographical information (in nearly any style: APA, Chicago, etc.), and,
  • it integrates with Microsoft Word and OpenOffice allowing one to drag-and-drop references.

Using Zotero

Some of the more commonly used features in Zotero that I like and use are:

  • The "My Library" View (first third of Zotero window):
    • the ability to create a directory structure, and,
    • the ability to drag-and-drop folders to new locations.
  • In the middle third of the Zotero screen:
    • In the green, circular "+" pull-down menu:
      • Store Copy of File…
    • Via the right-click menu for a stored item:
      • Add Attachment…
        • Attached Stored Copy of File…
      • Remove Selected Item
      • Delete Selected Item from Library
      • Create Bibliography from Selected Item
      • Retrieve Metadata for PDF
    • Advanced Search (via the Magnifying Glass icon)
  • In the far-right third of the Zotero screen…
    • The "Info", "Notes", "Tags", and "Related" tags are simply wonderful to tag items, etc. Such information can subsequently be used with searches etc.

Zotero is easy-to-use and documentation exists on the Zotero web site so I won't re-create that here. Instead, I will give some highlights of my experience using Zotero.

Attached Stored Copy of File

One of the nicest things that Zotero can do is attached other files to an entry you make or previously captured. For example, when performing surveys of the literature, you will often capture bibliographic reference information from scholarly journals and Google Scholar. Sometimes PDFs of the papers are automatically captured, but, usually they are not. Often however, such paper PDF files are available (e.g., via your university's web site proxies) for free –but you'll have to download the papers manually. Nicely, you'll want to associate the downloaded PDF with the captured bibliographical information. To do this, simply right-click on the captured bibliographical entry (in the middle section) and choose "Attached Stored Copy of File…", select the downloaded file, and Zotero will store a copy of that file in that entry.

Retrieve Metadata For PDF

This is a fantastic feature! Suppose you have a paper's PDF file but don't have the bibliographical information associated with it. Attach a stored copy of it into Zotero, right-click it, and choose "Retrieve Metadata for PDF". Zotero will then extract the full bibliographical data for nearly all PDFs for scholarly journals and conference proceedings papers. This is simply a must-have tool when you don't have the rest of the citation information.

NOTE: In cases where this did not work, I simply searched Google Scholar for an exact of the PDF's title. Once found, then I clicked the folder icon in the address bar to add the reference to Zotero. While this seems like more work, it often is much faster than typing it in yourself.

Removing & Deleting Items

Users should take care when using these features:

  • Remove Selected Item
  • Delete Selected Item from Library

Remove will delete the currently selected item instance ONLY. So, if you dragged-and-dropped that item elsewhere (e.g., you can do this with the "My Library" folders), then those items are NOT deleted –only the selected one is. This is the safest method of deleting an item. So, if in doubt, always use "Remove Selected Item" to delete something instead of "Deleted Selected Item from Library".

The "Delete Selected Item from Library" will delete all references to that item in the library even copies made of that item via drag-and-drop to other folders in the "My Library" section. Only use this feature if you are sure you want all references to that item removed from the entire library –regardless of where they are located.

It should be mentioned that if you capture two copies of a page independently and you use "Delete Selected Item from Library" then only those items copied from the one being deleted are destroyed. Independent captures of the same page will not be deleted. While this sounds confusing, you can do a small test to show how all of this removing and deleting works:

  • Create a "Test 1" folder in the "My Library" section.
  • Select the "Test 1" folder.
    • This must be done so Zotero knows where to save any captured pages.
  • Navigate to a web page (e.g., http://www.slashdot.org/).
  • Capture it using the cyan page icon in Zotero.
  • Create a "Test 2" folder in the "My Library" section.
  • Create a "Test 3" folder in the "My Library" section.
  • Click on the "Test 1" folder in the "My Library" section.
  • Click on and then drag-and-drop the Slashdot captured page to the "Test 2" folder. Do the same again but to the "Test 3" folder.
    • Notice that this does not move the captured page –but appears to make a copy of it.
    • This copy is by-reference. Which means if you use "Delete Selected Item from Library" then ALL by-reference copies are also deleted (and any annotations, etc. with such). Try it!
    • If you instead use the cyan page icon to make multiple independent captures, then those will still remain after a "Delete Selected Item from Library" –it is only those that were copied by-reference that are deleted. Again try it –before you use it for something critical!
  • When done trying the above out, delete the items you captured (from Library) and remove the library folders created.

Create Bibliography from Selected Item

At some point you want to get the information out of Zotero and into a real document/paper you are working on. Even if you don't have Microsoft Word or OpenOffice integration configured, you can easily put any selected reference into a paper, web page, etc. using Zotero. Simply right-click on the entry (in the middle third of the Zotero screen) and choose "Create Bibliography from Selected Item", choose the Citation Style (e.g., APA), and I find that "Copy to Clipboard" is the most useful since you only will need to paste the reference into your document.

NOTE: If you have Microsoft Word or OpenOffice integration, then there are more features including auto-updating the bibliographical information using Zotero.

Closing Comments

If you are doing any type of research using on-line resources, Zotero makes it very easy to track and maintain lots of references while allowing you to organize and search the referenced content. Truly, using Zotero to conduct on-line research is much easier than doing the same by hand!

2 Replies to “Zotero: A Great Research Tool”

  1. Two clarifications:
    1. The behavior you describe for "Rename File from Parent Metadata" is actually what happens for "Retrieve Metadata for PDF". Rename File from Parent Metadata renames the attached PDF or other file with a filename like "Jones – 2010 – Important Paper.pdf"

    Remove will delete the currently selected item instance ONLY. So, if you dragged-and-dropped that item elsewhere (e.g., you can do this with the “My Library” folders), then those items are NOT deleted –only the selected one is. This is the safest method of deleting an item. So, if in doubt, always use “Remove Selected Item” to delete something instead of “Deleted Selected Item from Library”.

    I think that this whole discussion will make more sense if you think of these not in terms of copy-by-reference and item instances versus copies, but rather that each time you add an item to a library, you get a new, fresh item. These items are all visible if you select "My Library" in the collections pane. The distinction to remember is indeed between Remove and Delete — but first you should take note of how Zotero handles the relationship between items and collections. An item can be a member of zero or more collections (in this way, the developers like to compare it to playlists in something like iTunes). Thus, dragging an item in Zotero to a collection adds the item to that collection. It does not remove the item from the present collection; to do that, select "Remove item from collection" or press the "Delete" key. The only way to make a copy of an item within Zotero is to select "Duplicate selected item".

    1. Oops! I fixed the erroneous "Rename File from Parent Metadata" to be the corrected "Retrieve Metadata for PDF". (Thanks for letting me know of my mistake!)

      The main reason why I wrote about the copy-by-reference notion is that I do believe that most users (incl. computer science users) will tend to assume that when you drag-and-drop items around in the library that they are copies (even if internally they are stored as reference counted entities). Why? This is the norm with file system-related icons (which is how such is presented in Zotero). While my description may not be the best way to describe how Zotero works, my primary aim of such was to communicate that (i) one should play with "remove" and "delete" to see how they behave and (ii) if one is not careful or does not understand how Zotero handles such then one will wind up deleting more than what was intended to be deleted. Hopefully that message is what comes across. If not, then I should re-write that portion!

      I wrote the post because I encounter many who are not using Zotero when they really should use it. Some of them read my blog entries, so I felt that was a good reason for a post!

      Many thanks for your response!

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