Zero In on Research Control With Zotero

With countless high school and college students heading back to school at roughly this time of year, now is a good time to get acquainted with Zotero, a great cross-platform tool for collecting, organizing, citing and sharing research sources.

I have spent considerable time working in academic settings helping students manage their research assignments. Since its introduction in 2006, open source Zotero proved to be one of the few really useful applications for keeping track of information regardless of the user’s OS preference.Zotero is a first cousin to Endnote for the Windows platform. It’s a great free alternative, however — for managing academic and corporate research references, generating citations and creating bibliographies within documents.


The Zotero standalone version interface displays collected content for editing or export.

I have found Zotero to be very helpful in producing white papers and other research-based reports in nonacademic work. It has extensions for a variety of Web browsers and plug-ins for OpenOffice and LibreOffice. There is even a plug-in for Microsoft Word on the Windows platform.

If you are a student or have a job that requires you to track research sources and document your information, Zotero could be a must-have tool.

Worth the Work

A few Linux distros, such as UberStudent, provide a Zotero package. Zotero versions are available for Mac and Windows computers as well.

Even without direct support for the Linux distro that you use, Zotero’s standalone module makes this tool readily available. It is only distributed in tarball compressed files, however.

Depending on the distro you use, installing Zotero can be anything but friendly, so you will need to be adept with handling compressed files. You also need to know your distro’s procedure for manually installing binary files.

On the other hand, installing the extensions and plug-ins for Zotero is easy using the built-in tools in the supporting browsers and word processors.

Filing Finesse

One of Zotero’s best features is its ability to automatically recognize content in your Web browser. This lets you add the information as you find it to the Zotero filing system with a single click.

If you are familiar with the clipping add-ons in services like Evernote, you can instantly appreciate how Zotero can automate labeling and finding stored information without having to do repetitive copying and pasting and flipping between browser and some other note-taking tool.

Zotero makes saving PDF files, images, audio and video files a snap. You can add with ease snapshots of Web pages you visit.

Even better, Zotero automatically indexes your information into a full-text library. Its easy-to-use interface makes searching for what you found and exporting it fast and simple.

The Interface

The standalone app window is divided into three panels. Basic program commands are found in the File, Edit, Tools and Help dropdown menus on the window’s top left.

The left column includes My Library, which contains all note items. It also holds stock details that you labeled as Duplicate items and Unified items. A trash folder is also shown so you can access previously deleted material.

The middle column displays a list of entered notes by Title and Creator. This is the main access window for entering, editing and monitoring the collected research information.

The right column shows a list of entered research items. A list of tags slides open that includes a hefty list of options to slug a research entry, including a label for attachments and one for notes.

Handling Notes

You can create, edit and merge your collection of information from the entries in the middle column of the Zotero window. Add any number of additional columns by selecting More Columns from this listing and then scrolling through the list of labels.

At the top of the middle column is a Notes button. Use it to attach rich-text notes to any item listed in the middle column. Or you can add files directly to your library without attaching them to existing items.

You can edit notes in the right column or in the entry’s own window by clicking on the entry. Click the New Standalone Note button in the Edit toolbar to create a note without attaching it to an item. You can also create a New Item and a New Collection this way.

I like how simply I can attach any type of file to an item. Certain items such as image files open in the Firefox or Google Chrome browser window if you have the browser extensions installed. Other file types open in external programs.

Using It

Do not confuse what Zotero does with more general-purpose note-taking systems. Zotero’s chief purpose is to track research notes and formulate citations and bibliographies.

To that end, Zotero’s Collections and Tags features keep you focused on filing and finding your research content. In this regard, the application resembles what you do in managing your photos and music libraries.

You can create a Collection folder for each research project or assignment you have. This makes it easy to store and track items relating to a specific project or topic.

You can assign tags to each item as well. This makes it easy to call up a list of closely related pieces of information. Zotero lets you create tag names and assign up to 6 tags to an item, each with their own colors and numbers.

Bottom Line

Zotero is a complete platform for managing research and preparing its documentation. Online synchronization makes it easy to access your research notes from multiple computers and from any location.

You might choose to work alone, but if the academic or workplace research involves group effort, Zotero allows users to create collaborative groups. Group members can manage research sources and materials through the software’s online hub or from the various Zotero clients.

Want to Suggest a Linux Application for Review?

Is there a Linux software application you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Please send your ideas to me at [email protected], and I’ll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.

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