Free Multiplatform Reference Management? Try Zotero

Mark Bieda zotero references computer software citations

You use Endnote, refman, or one of the others. You want a free alternative because (1) you don’t want to worry about licensing issues (like buying a new copy for each computer) (2) you want something that will run under windows, linux, and mac os x (3) you just don’t want to pay or (4) you want to move your references from place to place without having to adapt to the local software choice (i.e. some places will have Endnote, others will have RefMan, others will have other solutions) or (5) you just believe stuff like this should be free.

So: I have been using Zotero for over a year. Zotero is great for everyday web stuff, but here I will just talk about it as a reference manager.

As with my other software comments, this is based on my real experience. I recently wrote an entire grant using Zotero as my only reference manager. And it worked well.

A key thing:
Zotero is heavily and institutionally supported (see the webpage). From the forum comments, you can see that many users are in academe. So it should only get better

(1) This is clearly still in development. But, as I said, I wrote a grant with it – and it worked well for me, but it is not as smooth as EndNote in many ways.
(2) There are a limited number of citation styles, but this number is growing – and you can define your own. For things like grants, usually you get to choose a style. For a typical paper, you won’t have a large number of references, and a little manual editing. Still, because of this, Endnote really still has a big edge.

Getting it:
(1) Zotero is a firefox extension and, when you go to the site, seems more geared toward web-based research.
(2) Installation is superfast and easy. Firefox is the way to go. No internet explorer version.
(3) You will also need to download plug-ins for either Microsoft Word or Openoffice Writer. I used OpenOffice Writer for my grant.

(1) There is a tutorial on the website, unfortunately oriented mostly toward the MS Word usage. The same rules apply.
(2) IF you are using OpenOffice Writer, here is something to be careful with: don’t save your files in .doc (MS word) format. I usually do, because I need to send files to colleagues, all of who have MS word but not OpenOffice Writer. If you do this, you will lose the ability to handle your citations.

Getting going:
download and install Zotero from the Zotero website
download and install the appropriate word processing plugin

To get citations:
(1) you can import from many, many sites – like Pubmed, notably.You just click on a button when you find something you like and it gets imported into Zotero.

(1) When I last looked (about April, 2008), the documentation for Zotero was generally very good, but the documentation for the citation/reference aspects was very poor. So I strongly suggest that you download a few references and play with a pretend, test document to get a sense of how zotero works and your results. I did this and it really helped me use it. Only took a few minutes of playing around.


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