Tool Name: Zotero

Version Number/Release Date: 3.0

Developer Website: Zotero

Reviewed by: Joseph Santoli

Review Date: 30 January 2013

Tags or Keywords:  citation, library, collection, collaborate, share, sync, research

Purposes of the Tool

ADD CONTENT: Zotero will automatically recognize content on a webpage and allows you to add that citation to your “library.” You can add this content from scholarly sites like EBSCOHost, or websites like Amazon, flickr, The New York Times and Youtube (essentially any website with media). You may also preserve entire websites, like a list of articles from a JSTOR search.

ORGANIZE: Zotero can organize any type of file. With Zotero, you can add tags to each of your citations and sort your research quickly and easily – it is similar to iTunes or Windows Media Player.

CITE: Zotero can also create the citations for each item in your library in many different styles. It can also format footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies.

SYNC: It is also easy to transfer your work from one computer to another. Zotero “syncs” your library with your online account so that you can access your library anywhere you go, and on any of Zotero’s types. For example, if you used the Firefox Zotero plugin, you could install the stand-alone Zotero plugin on another computer and sync your libraries.

SHARE: You can also easily share your research library with others. You can set your projects up to be only for you, or public, or private, allowing only specific other people to view your library. The “Zotero groups” are very easy to find, navigate and create on your own. Zotero allows you to collaborate remotely with groups and edit the same libraries simultaneously. Zotero keeps a record of every change that has been made to the library and by what user. It is easy to see what your peers have done while you have used the program last. Each group also has access to their own discussion forum.

ONLINE: Zotero is not only a browser based tool, but a useful website. Zotero keeps a backup of your library online at all times. You can even access your library from their website without any plugin, but you cannot add sources to your library. While limited, the online backup is easy to navigate, and very useful for making quick searches and notes.  You can easily view other groups’ projects on the website, or post your project for others to find. Zotero also organizes people into specific organizations like Anthropology, History, Literature etc. You can also follow people on the website to see what projects they create or participate in. Zotero also lists all new members to Zotero and all new groups on their pages.


GENERAL FEATURES: The left sidebar of Zotero organizes all of your citations into folders and tiers. You can view duplicate items or restore deleted items from this sidebar. The main toolbar allows access to advanced and quick search options, auto-sync to account library, attaching local files and adding items by “identifier” (ISBN, DOI or PMID). The right sidebar includes all of the metadata attached to each file. You can also add notes to specific citations which will be shared with anyone who edits the library, and connect documents under the “Related” tab. The library in the middle can be organized by name, author, date or numerous other categories. The items in the library list can be dragged out onto a document or email which will then display its citation. With additional Word processor plugins, one can have even more command over their citations during research; Zotero will automatically generate your bibliography as you cite sources and can change the style into any other with a few clicks.


The signup is free and painless. Zotero also includes tutorials and guides for every step you’ll need to take, including installing the program. The tool is very intuitive. Everything you need is either on the toolbar of the program or can be found when you right-click (ctrl+click for macs). The program’s simple controls are easy to navigate, and they do not include a complicated toolbar. Everything you think should happen does happen. For example, you can click on any file in the attached “related” list to go to that file’s related list.

That being said, the tool is difficult to use outside of Firefox. I do not recommend using the tool outside of Firefox unless you have used it before. I had tried the chrome extension at first and only Firefox supports the Zotero in-browser toolbar, so it was difficult to find my library. Also, you cannot right-click and “Add to Zotero” as you can in Firefox, which severely limits the types of files you can use. I did not try the functionality of the library in Chrome because I could not find it! Other than this, Zotero has few limitations for its purpose. However, the tool is not capable of importing bibliographies from sources as of yet.

I would always double check information while you’re getting comfortable using the tool; most citations will not import with tags, so if you want to manage your citations and search topics easily, tag your items as you add them to Zotero. The same goes for citations. I recommend checking each citation with the official handbook on that citation style. Never expect Zotero to cite the item perfectly for you. Be sure to keep a separate backup of your work; Zotero is not responsible for lost libraries and lost research. Zotero is a tool for us to use, but we must be careful not to rely on it too heavily.

Implications for Digital Humanities

This program is clearly useful for those who often fall into disorganization or have a multitude of bookmarks. Zotero, in that way, is a great bookmark manager for your sources, but can also include direct links to images, PDFs etc. The in-depth advance search function makes it very easy to find key words or phrases in many different files, or search titles for patterns etc.

The most influential aspect of Zotero on research however, is likely the ability to share your library with other researchers. This changes the field of collaborative research entirely; sources may be added, notes may be created and information can be shared in real-time no matter where each researcher is and no matter how many researchers are simultaneously editing the library. Each person who has access to the group has access to the immediate thoughts and interests of everyone else who is editing the library.

The project itself reflects the ideals of open source that it endorses. The project code is open source; the website includes a page of information on how to get involved including using Zotero code for your own programs, developing new apps/plugins for Zotero, create a citation style and more. Zotero also offers ways for people who are not comfortable with coding to help out as well and includes links to their Wiki, forum moderation and beta testing which anyone with any expertise (or no expertise at all) can help out with. This open source policy is completely optional; projects can always be private and it is not required to get involved with the program itself if you use it.

Summary:  A very intuitive web tool for collecting, organizing and sharing your citations.

Cost: Free for PC

Requirements: For full functionality, Firefox. For partial functionality: Chrome, Safari or stand-alone Zotero.

Rival or Comparable Tools:  EndNote, Easybib

4 thoughts on “Zotero

  1. Alex Pieschel

    I found the visual presentation of the review much more effective, informative than the written version, but I suppose that’s the nature of the beast with this kind of project. I like that you mention discrepancies between each kind of browser. I think that kind of thing is an important aspect of functionality that tools sometimes fail to consider. It’s clear that you have been very thorough in considering the contexts in which you might want to use this tool, which is good because I think this is a tool worth telling people about. I think the range of content and syncing capabilities are both important points here, which you emphasized in your demonstration.

    I might have considered different comparisons in your Organization section . iTunes and Windows Media Player don’t really help me visualize what Zotero does. I would guess there are other examples of freeware that are used for bookmarking/bibliographical purposes that might have served as better touchstones for your discussion of Organization. You might have elaborated on EndNote or Easybib, which you mention at the end of this post.

    Also, typo in this sentence: “The website also includes easy access and search to the groups so you can find projects you are interested, or post your project for others to find.”

    Another trifle: “The online library backup, while limited, is also easy to navigate, and very useful for making quick searches and notes. ” Though I believe you clarified this in the presentation in class, I don’t think you make it clear in the written version why the online library backup is limited.

    Overall, I would say this is an exhaustive, clear, and informative review.

  2. Dallas Merritt

    The write up you’ve done for this review is organized, thorough, and left little to desire. I am not sure I completely agree with the assessment that the tool is excellent for sharing direct links to PDFs, as we determined during your oral presentation that those links may actually have permission based restrictions associated with them that might prevent colleagues from accessing the file. Even so, your explanation of the tool’s dynamic capabilities indicates that whatever minor glitches or impediments the program has now will likely be worked out in future updates.

    Your oral presentation was thorough, and your experience with the tool was obvious. There were moments I felt might have been more streamlined, or more efficiently presented, but that was driven, at least in part, by questions that arose during the presentation that required further explanation.

    I know, for my part, I was sold on the product and have set up an account based upon your presentation. So, I would say it was successful in that regard. I’m also quite interested in how these tools are useful for our professional development as scholars, beyond their appeal for digital humanities use. I like that you afforded a portion of your time to an explanation of that benefit.

  3. David Ainsworth

    Another typo to clean up: “SHARE: You can also easily share you research library with others.” Second “you” should be “your.”

    A very thorough review, and I especially like your consideration of the implications for DH more broadly. I wonder whether Zotero could function as a platform to replace print annotated bibliographies?

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