Tools of The Trade: Zotero

If you read a lot of scientific papers, or do any other kind of academic study, you need a way to manage the mess. I’m talking about the piles of photocopies, books, and notes – or these days, gigabytes of PDFs, web links, and text files. Zotero is the best solution I’ve seen for this so far.

The genius of this little browser plug-in is that it automatically senses certain types of web content, such as research journal articles and bibliographic searches. It has a particularly profound understanding of PubMed, the main search engine for biomedical science. Zotero doesn’t flaunt its knowledge, though – it just adds an unobtrusive icon in the address bar when it understands what you’re reading. Click that, and you can add citations to a library the program maintains on your computer. There’s also an option to synchronize those citations across other devices, using Zotero’s server. All of this is free.

Zotero in action.

Zotero in action.

Once the citations are on board, you can get to work. The screenshot shows a paper I was reading today. The top part of the screen is the regular browser window, with a paper I was reading online. The bottom section is the interface for Zotero. With a click, I can make Zotero take up the whole screen, or open in a separate window, or go away entirely. To save clips of text from the paper, all I have to do is highlight some text, right-click to get a contextual menu, and then select “Add to Zotero note.” The clip gets stored alongside the citation for easy reference. Of course I can also add my own notes, and can export the notes, the citation, or both in a wide range of formats. There’s also a slew of collaboration tools that operate through the program’s web site.

As with any sophisticated tool, there’s a bit of a learning curve, but so far I’ve been able to figure out how to do just about everything I’ve wanted to with the application. If I find myself thinking “Zotero should be able to do that,” a few minutes of clicking around usually reveals that it can. There are other citation managers available, of course – Mendeley and CiteULike both have dedicated followings – but for what I do, Zotero has been a good fit.