Bibliographic referencing certainly isn’t the most exciting part of academic research, but it’s absolutely vital. Although getting everything in the right format and order is unspeakably dull, there are many tools out there that will make your academic life much easier. You’ll need to invest a bit of time upfront, but you’ll be very glad you did.
This week’s Thing is dedicated to Zotero, a simple-to-use tool that helps you record, manage, and cite bibliographic data. Although there are a few alternatives, Zotero is arguably the strongest contender and also the easiest to learn. Let’s get acquainted.
Zotero is free open-source software that works on Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s a project of the Corporation for Digital Scholarship and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, the same people responsible for Tropy. It’s a not-for-profit initiative with a secure future.
The Zotero interface is a little bit like iTunes and you can think of it as your personal digital library or research assistant.
When you download Zotero, you’ll be prompted to create a login. This then allows you to access your library across multiple devices, including a smartphone. Your data is also backed up to the Zotero server, giving you extra security.
Once installed, Zotero lurks in the background and detects when you are viewing a webpage that contains bibliographic information, such as a library catalogue record. The details can be saved with one click (including PDFs of journal articles as attachments).
Alternatively, you can add items using an ISBN or DOI (Digital Object Identifier, commonly used for journal articles).
You’re then ready to add tags and notes and also organise your items into collections. So, you might create a collection for each of your thesis chapters, and tags for each of the themes within them. It’s entirely up to you.
If you’re not an organised little pixie, you can just use the search facility to retrieve your items. You can search by specific fields, such as author or title, or even search the full text of PDFs. It’s also possible to save your searches. This essentially means you’re building a dynamic collection based on certain criteria, such as all the journal articles that share the same tag.
The plugins for Word and OpenOffice allow you to easily cite references in your documents and also create perfectly-formatted bibliographies with a few keystrokes. Yes, it’s magic. Google Docs users can install the Paperpile plugin to create citations from Zotero.
By default Zotero includes most of the major referencing styles. You can access thousands more through the Style Library, even obscure journal-specific styles. And changing from one style to another takes a matter of seconds. This is a boon if you want to adapt a thesis chapter into a journal article.
How to Get Started with Zotero
Most people can learn the basics of Zotero within 30 minutes, and use it proficiently in under an hour. The Zotero website includes many tutorials, screencasts and links to other resources. Your University probably offers online training materials or workshops, too.
Once you’re up and running, there are some extra tools you can use to further improve the Zotero experience. Zotfile is a free plugin that extracts highlights and annotations from PDFs and adds them to the notes field of the relevant item in Zotero.
This means you can easily find the key content without having to skim through the entire article.
For iPad an Mac users, PaperShip offers an attractive interface for your Zotero library, along with enhanced PDF annotation features.
If you already have your bibliographic data saved elsewhere, for example in a spreadsheet, it’ll take a little while to get everything set up in Zotero. This is time well spent, though, as you’ll avoid many tedious hours of manually formatting your citations and bibliography. Also, your referencing will be more accurate. Zotero automatically extracts bibliographic data from PDFs, so it’s very quick to import a folder of journal articles.
There’s just one suggested activity this week: install Zotero! If you don’t already have a bibliographic referencing tool, this is one of the most important actions you can take.