If you're looking for a way to organise all the information you find and research you do online, and you've had enough with bookmarking, copying and pasting, and cobbled-together techniques not cutting it, Zotero is a comprehensive information manager for Firefox.
Zotero is, at its heart, a citation manager. It was designed to facilitate research and to make organising and including that research in essays and publications pain free. As such it's an excellent tool for any scholar, researcher or student to have in their toolbox. Its utility extends well beyond preparing to write a paper however as it allows you to grab nearly anything off the web and insert it into the Zotero system. The following video gives a quick overview of some of Zotero's features:
If the overview video caught your interest, read on and check out some of the other great screencasts to see the individual features in action.
Getting Items in Zotero
You can add items in a myriad of ways to Zotero. From within Firefox you can click the Zotero icon in the address bar, on the status bar, or hit CTRL+ALT+Z to activate Zotero. You can add nearly everything on the web from books — Zotero will add in all the information about the book automatically — to clicking portions of web pages, to full out saving entire web pages for future reference. Unlike bookmarking a web page, Zotero saves the page just like you would save it to your computer. Thus when you got to reference it later on, even if it is has moved or been deleted your still have the images and text archived. In addition to capturing information from the web you can supplement your Zotero archive by adding files right from your computer like images, HTML documents, PDFs, and more.
Organising Your Research
Zotero allows you to organise your research into collections. The collections are highly flexible and an item can belong to multiple collections simultaneously. They use the analogy of the playlist and it's fitting, you can "mix" your research into as many collections as it needs to be in. Your Zotero library is the master collection of all your research, from that research you can pull citations, clippings, PDFs and so on, and create a collection representing your current area of interest or research like "19th Century Medieval Literary Criticism" or "Potential Markets for Growth". Collections can be easily modified and even shared.
Word Processor Compatibility and Citations
Although Zotero was built to facilitate researchers using Firefox and working on the web, the system — through the use of plugins — allows you to work in your favourite word processor using Zotero. They've made plugins for Microsoft Word, OpenOffice and NeoOffice — if word processor support is a deal breaker for you, make sure to check out their word processor compatibility chart. Check out the Word integration in the video below:
As the video shows, inserting citations and even changing them in-text is easy. You're not just limited to citations in word processors however, you can drag and drop citations right out Zotero into any text box. Zotero comes with a built-in library of common citation formats like AMA, APA, Chicago Style, MLA — over a dozen by default. If that isn't enough you can dip into the style repository and select from hundreds of alternative citations styles. On the rare chance you can't find a citation style — and it would be rare! — you can hop over to the Zotero support forum and put in a request for it to be added to the archive.
Syncing Your Research and Files
Nobody wants to lug around a computer or flash drive and risk losing all the research they've done. Zotero has multiple channels for syncing your data to ensure your research is safe. Zotero syncs itself to the servers, if you have it installed on multiple computers you can sync all the instances of Zotero through the Zotero servers, and to further replicate your data you can share it with friends through the Zotero group system so that your joint research is replicated across multiple computers.
Zotero is a complex yet easy to manage research tool. Fully intended for academic research you can use it outside of academia to manage your research on any topic from nearly any source on the web. Our overview here highlights some of the best features of Zotero but a quick browse through the support section on Zotero's website will show you even more capabilities and innovative ways people are using Zotero to help wrestle with the enormous amount of information web-based research provides.
If you have experience with Zotero or just have a research tip or trick up your sleeve, let's hear about it in the comments.