October 27, 2006

Zotero: A seriously useful research tool

Author: Dmitri Popov

If you spend most of your time doing research on the Web, you need Zotero, a Firefox extension that helps you manage research sources. With Zotero installed, Firefox is not confined to the Web, and you can use it as a standalone application for all sorts of online and offline research.

Zotero requires Firefox version 2.0, so you must obtain and install the latest version of the browser to be able to use the extension. To install Zotero, visit its Web site from Firefox, click on the Download button, and you are ready to go. Zotero places an icon in the right lower corner of the browser status bar; click on the icon to show and hide the application's main window. Alternatively, you can add the Zotero button to the toolbar by choosing View -> Toolbars -> Customize and dragging the Z icon onto the toolbar.

Zotero's main window consists of three panes. The left pane contains your library, which is a repository of every item you've added, including books, articles, Web pages, and notes. The library can contain an unlimited number of collections, which you can use to sort the items in the library. For example, you can create separate collections for the book, articles, and Web page items. Zotero also lets you create smart folders called "saved searches," which are similar to dynamic playlists in music player applications. Using this feature, you can, for example, create a smart folder that contains all books and articles by a certain publisher. When you add a new item that matches the specified criteria, the smart folder updates automatically. If you right-click on a collection, you can perform several actions, including exporting it (Zotero supports BibTeX, MODS, RIS, Refer/BibIX, and other formats) and generating a bibliography. Zotero not only supports different citation styles, it can also output the final result in several formats, including RTF and HTML.

The middle pane displays the items in the currently selected collection. It's also a working area, where you add new items and edit existing ones. Use the New Item button on the top of the middle pane to add a new item, which can be anything from books and articles to maps and artwork. Using the other buttons on the toolbar, you can also add the currently opened Web page to the collection, take a snapshot of the Web page, and create a standalone note. The ability to take snapshots of Web pages makes Zotero a great archiving tool in line with ScrapBook.

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While these are all useful features, they are not as impressive as Zotero's ability to sense items on the currently viewed Web page. For example, when you are looking at a book on Amazon, Zotero displays a book icon in the Address bar. Click on it, and Zotero adds the book and its bibliographic information to the library. When you are browsing through search results from, for example, Cambridge University Libraries, Zotero displays a folder icon, and when you click on it, you can select the items you want to add to the library. This is an extremely useful feature, but it only works with supported Web sites.

Once an item has been added to your library, you can use the right pane to add or modify citation information. Here you can also add notes and attachments to an item. The latter option allows you, for example, to attach a PDF version of the article to the article's entry in your library. You can either link to a file on your hard disk, or you can copy the attachment into Zotero. This way, your documents remain attached even if you delete the originals. By the way, when you add a book from, say, Amazon, Zotero automatically attaches a snapshot of the book's Web page to the book's info.

To make the task of finding and categorizing your library even easier, Zotero allows you to add tags to the items in your library so you can easily locate them. Next to the Tags tab in the right pane there is the Related tab, where you can cross-reference different items.

Since Zotero aims to provide an open source alternative to the established citation software such as EndNote, I asked Dan Cohen, the project director, about the advantages that the extension offers. "Citation managers are either desktop clients (like EndNote) or Web-based apps (like Connotea). Zotero gives you the best of both worlds by running in your browser but saving your personal library on your own machine (so you can work with that information online or off). But we're also soon going to provide a way to sync or backup your data online and share it with other users." According to Cohen, Zotero offers a better way to sense and save citations in a Web page. "With EndNote, you either have to cut and paste the citation information from the browser into EndNote, or use a little EndNote button that content providers have to put up themselves (and even there, the process involves a few steps -- clicking on the reference button to save it, going to EndNote, loading the downloading file into it). I think the one-click method of Zotero is much better, and content providers don't have to do anything for Zotero to work with their collections." Zotero also features a more intuitive and powerful interface and organizational tools, including the described smart folders and full text indexing of articles (currently, it supports only the plain text format). An upcoming version of Zotero will also include support for regular expression search. Since Zotero can exchange data with other applications and services, you can be more than just a citation manager. "For instance, it would be relatively trivial to have Zotero send locations mentioned in an article to a Web service like Google Maps", Cohen says.

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