Zotero – the reference manager of the future?

November 6th, 2006 by shane

The recent launch of Zotero has been deservedly causing a lot excitement in the world of academic techno early adopters. It shows early promise, and there seems to some serious support behind its development, with a full time developer working on it.

Zotero is a Firefox add-on which is both a bibliographic storage program, and a means for storing notes and web pages. What is particularly exciting about Zotero is that it offers convergence. There are some great separate tools out there for managing references and for managing notes. For academic purposes, my current chosen combination is Endnote for references (though I do despise Endnote for various reasons) and Microsoft Onenote for notes. But Endnote is pretty useless for note taking, and Onenote doesn’t store bibliographic information, and there is no easy way to integrate the two information stores.

The advantage of Zotero is that it sits in your web browser. Now, I don’t visit the library often, and the vast majority of my academic knowledge inputs and research stem from the internet, and the firefox browser is my gateway to this. Zotero supports “scraping” of references – automatically capturing reference information from a variety of growing academic web databases, as well as allowing you to easily capture web pages (like online articles), and associating notes and web pages with references. It has lots of goodies like search-as-you-type, import and export to endnote and the like, and tagging support. The roadmap for Zotero suggests that will offer functionality that will eventually compete with online reference management tools like cite-u-like.

Personally, I am not diving fully into it until they have full support for storing abstracts of references (which should have soon I hope), but I have high hopes for this tool.

Oh, did I mention its free, open source, and based entirely around open standards?

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12 Responses to “Zotero – the reference manager of the future?”

  1. Mark GrimshawNo Gravatar Says:

    Well, that was a gushing review ;) Unfortunately, there is already a lot of free, open source software out there (and has been for some time) that offer your ‘convergence’ (reference management and note-taking) and some offer a whole lot more.

    How about listing some of the disadvantages of Zotero (fine piece of software though it is)? (i.e. Firefox specific, needs to be installed on your computer so you’re tied to the one computer (although they’re talking about centralized systems)).

  2. ShaneNo Gravatar Says:

    “unfortunately”? Don’t you mean fortunately ! *-)

    This wasn’t meant to a be comprehensive review of Zotero, it was a more of public service announcement. As I said, I am not using it yet, but I think it has the potential to be “the reference manager of the future”, and I have looked at several of the alternatives.

    A review of the different reference managers would, however, something we would like to post in future. We should have a post with a comparison of some of the online options soon.

    Ah, I see now that you are responsible for WIKINDX. WIKINDX looks great, and I was excited to try it, but after spending an hour or so I couldn’t install it, and I gave up, sorry. My opinion was that the for the individual non highly tech savy user having to install and run Apache/PHP/MySQL (even via WAMP) and configure it was a considerable obstacle for the use of the program (one that I crashed into).

  3. Mark GrimshawNo Gravatar Says:

    I’m afraid I did mean ‘unfortunately’ because your review/public service announcement gave the strong impression that were no such web-based ‘convergence tools’ and that Zotero was the first example. Given that this purports to be an _academic_ blog I’m hoping to see balanced reviews and more comprehensive research. Even public service announcements should be accurate. I say that at the risk of offending you but, as this blog is a new resource, I hope you will take it under advisement and work to ensure that this blog rises above the general, ephemeral, throwaway crap of the Blogosphere.

    Re. using WAMP for WIKINDX or other solutions, there’s nothing to configure as far as the software’s concerned. All you need to do is to set up a database and I provide instructions here:

    I can assure you it’s not that difficult — witness the number of non-technical people who have set it up. The only WAMP issues I’m aware of relate to some versions of WAMP which I detail here:

    If you want to have full relational searching, cross-referencing etc. then you have to have a database — no two ways about it.

    If you want to be able to share your resources with a research team or to access and search them from any networked computer, then you have to have a web server — no two ways about it.

    Lest you think I’m simply using this blog to push WIKINDX, please bear in mind that I also have some responsibility for Bibliophile:

    where you’ll find plenty of fine free OS bibliographic software whatever your needs.

  4. BastienNo Gravatar Says:

    I think Zotero has a chance to become something very useful (and quite popular) if it does concentrate on bibliographic functionnalities, letting notes aside. Exporting a whole set of bookmarks as BibTeX references is something everyone has been dreaming of… (no?)

  5. mark grimshawNo Gravatar Says:

    I agree. I can also see how being able to export references to a common format like bibtex may be used to import those references into a more complete tool. Of course, bibtex has its problems like its lack of support for those of us in the humanities.

  6. shaneNo Gravatar Says:

    I questioned the term “unfortunately”, because one interpretation of your sentence was that the fact there are lots of free open source alternatives was a bad thing, which obviously its not!

    Wikindx may be relatively straight forward to setup, but it didn’t work for me. I checked and I was using the most recent version of WAMP, which wasn’t listed as one of the incompatible ones. I might try uninstalling it and trying one of the versions that you confirm definitely work.

    As for Zotero, it has quickly become my favoured way to easily capture references, academic bookmarks and academic webpages from the internet, which is along the lines of what Bastien thinks Zotero can be very useful for. At the moment its notetaking and management facilities aren’t close to competing with some tools yet, and I export the references to another tool for management and writing papers.

    My point about “convergence”, tough I admit I didn’t spell this out or make it clear, was not that it was the only or first tool to offer the integration of references with content & notes, but that I was impressed by the particular solution it offers, which I think is novel. That solution is to integrate the storage and access of references & content within the tool I use to get those references.

    Regarding the somewhat ephemeral nature of the post, well, the ultimate goal on this blog is to produce timeless content that provide a lasting resource to the academic community. In doing that we have to find the right balance between frequency and quality, which is influenced by the time it takes to write carefully researched and comprehensive posts. Not every post is going to satisfy that goal, and some will have more content than others, but over time we hope to satisfy the aim of producing interesting, informative and lasting content.

  7. Mark GrimshawNo Gravatar Says:

    Fair enough.

    Re wikindx, I _would_ strongly suggest using one of the WAMP packages I list as working. The sourceforge forums for wikindx are full of people trying to use WAMP (and XAMP and LAMP) and discovering that various versions don’t work. I ask them to report back to me which ones work and which ones don’t and, where I get the information, I post it on the website. However, I don’t always get that information so often remain in the dark.

  8. RickNo Gravatar Says:

    This is an interesting discussion, as I can understand both Shane’s and Mark’s angles here. Shane heard about Zotero, realised it could be useful, and mentioned it on the blog. Nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, Zotero has generated a terrific amount of buzz in relation to its actual present capabilities, and Mark perceives a danger that better (depending on your situation) alternatives will suffer from neglect. It’s natural that people will tend to follow the buzz on blogs such as this one, so it’s desirable that the buzz should be well-chosen.

    I think an issue that needs to be discussed much more than it is is the desirability or otherwise of supporting new individual software when there are already collaborative alternatives such as Wikindx, Bibsonomy, and CiteULike. I think there’s a real danger that things like Zotero could drain enough energy out of those alternatives that they never really reach their full potential.

  9. JamesNo Gravatar Says:

    I disagree with Rick’s statement. Zotero is well-funded & is being open in their development (unlike the closed source and centrally hosted CiteULike and Bibsonomy).

    The monolithic model that Rick seems to endorse won’t ever work (and, if it did, we’d probably be stuck with some proprietary system like Endnote). Mark and the other authors of these apps should embrace the differences & make it easier for us to collaborate!

    The bibliographic apps should just work well with each other. For example, I believe all can import from Zotero & zotero can import from some. (The only free/open source web-based system that Zotero automatically detect from that I’ve seen is RefBase.)

  10. ShaneNo Gravatar Says:

    Since Zotero came along I find myself using cite-u-like (and Endnote) very little. This was because I found Zotero a better solution for my needs, and the features that cite-u-like had, like its online social aspects, were “nice to have” but not “must have” features.

    So certainly Zotero will draw away users from these other solutions, but then people will always chose whatever software that best fits their needs.

    Also, don’t forget Zotero promises to have online access and shared collections in its future development, though I would guess doesn’t have quite the potential that cite-u-like that has. But the potential of cite-u-like (and related tools) would only be fully realised if everyone used just one of these tools. However, since since you already have connetea, refworks, Bibsonomy etc…you could argue that the alternatives each damage each other, just as much as Zotero does.

    As James suggests, I think interoperability is going to be the solution.

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