Oh Zotero

Transitioning to a new job is fun and leads to a whole lot of reflection on the differences between institutions:  values, teaching practices, culture, etc.  One thing I’ve noticed about instruction at my new job is that I’m asked to teach students how to use Zotero with much more frequency (and I’ve only been here a few weeks!).

If you don’t know what Zotero is: STOP.  This tool will change your research life.  If you do know what Zotero is: skip the next paragraph.  (I used to love choose your own adventure books.)

Zotero is a free citation management tool that will help you collect, organize, and cite information resources and collaborate with other researchers.  The application can be downloaded on any device, but is a web-based platform and so you can continue your work independent of a particular device.  I can’t emphasize enough how much Zotero has helped sustain my professional growth and has led to a reduction of repeated labor.  I don’t lose information, I can return to resources and notes easily, I can collaborate with friends from afar.  I wish I used Zotero in school and most of the students I introduce it to wish they had known about it earlier in their academic careers.

In the past, I’ve created videos showing the citation magic that Zotero provides so that students have some incentive to go through the download process.  I share it here because I think it’s an alright example of a quick video that can be used for outreach or at the beginning of an instruction session.  It is far from perfect.

Downloading Zotero is a struggle.  I tell students to use the web browser that they use to search most frequently, but Zotero is easiest to download when using Google Chrome.  I send download instructions to the professor and students before class so that we can jump right into all of the cool features after (inevitably) troubleshooting issues.  An important step I’ll highlight here is syncing the standalone (device-specific) version with the browser-based version and changing the preferences to sync “as needed.”

Here are the features I always highlight:

  • Making individual folders, including subfolders. Sharing organizational strategies is fun!
  • Making group folders
  • Getting items into folders in Zotero, both automatically (clicking on the browser extension) and manually (populating the fields in a new record)
  • Using notes – asking students how they take notes. Close reading and strategic organization can help with recall and incorporating information into your work!
  • Using tags – I like tagging books as “done” that I’ve finished in my “Books to read” folder. I don’t take them out of the folder because I like seeing what books I’ve added over time via the timeline tool.screenshot
  • Saving searches. Creating folders that automatically populate based on rules that you set up is really fun.  I have a saved search right now that collects items that have the keyword “information literacy” and are published after 2010.  This was probably an example for class that I’ve kept and find interesting.
  • Using the timeline tool, which allows you to visualize entire folders by publication date or date added to the folder.
  • Getting citations into your paper and changing the citation styles. Again, one caveat is that this works best in Microsoft Word, there is not plugin for Google Docs or Pages.  However, the ability to put in parenthetical citations and click a button to have your entire list of used references automatically appear is really cool.  Students that don’t have Word can always drag and drop resources from Zotero to their reference page.

Many instructors at Muhlenberg seem to ask for Zotero instruction for their seniors, prior to a major capstone project.  At DeSales, a few English composition instructors thought Zotero was exciting and would ask for it to be introduced during their students’ first or second semester of school.  It seems to me that seniors are more interested in the tool because they have experienced that organization and citation problems that frequently occur during large research endeavors.  However, I have never refused a Zotero session – I think its value is immense and relevant to everyone.

Zotero brings power to the researcher.  Corporations know that collecting data on what users do is useful over time.  Take that idea and flip it– collect data on your own scholarly endeavors over time.  Organize your work and keep it.  Return to it.  Analyze yourself and identify connections between articles in the variety of disciplines you’ve collected over time.  You’ll likely find new ideas and might even learn about yourself.

I would love to hear about your experiences with Zotero.  Is there interest on your campus?  Is there a particular time or class that requires Zotero instruction?  Do you use it personally?  Do you have any creative methods of teaching Zotero?

If you’re diving into the world of Zotero now you know who you can ask questions!

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