It seemed like a good idea at the time. And I think it was. Using Excel 2007 to organize all of my research references worked very well during my time in graduate school. But that was in 2009. The world—and its technology—have changed. So now I’m happy to tell anyone and everyone to NOT follow the advice I presented in my 2009 blog post about using Excel to organize all of your research articles.
Instead, use Zotero.
Zotero has been around for a few years, but it only recently (in my estimation) reached the point at which it does everything I want it to do. Granted, I wasn’t really paying attention to research and related technologies while I was on my all-expenses paid trip to Afghanistan from December 2012 to December 2013. But let’s just say that since I’ve been back and diving into research again, I’ve been thrilled with Zotero.
To set the stage, understand that I have thousands of PDFs of scholarly journal articles. These are all somehow related to work I’ve done or work I’m still doing. So any technology that helps me manage them has the potential to save me a substantial amount of time. Even more significantly, a well-designed technology has the potential to help me organize my actual thoughts.
I downloaded Zotero a few weeks ago. It’s free to download from www.zotero.org. I have it installed on my home computer and on my work computer. Zotero is free to use up to 300MB of storage; after that, you can buy more space.
I’m not going to outline all of the features of Zotero here, as I probably don’t know all of them yet. But here are a few of my favorites:
1. It automatically syncs what I do on my home computer with the cloud. I worked on research from home today, but when I go to the office tomorrow and fire up that computer, Zotero will look exactly the same as it does at home.
2. It can pull the metadata from PDFs. That means that once you put PDFs into your library, you can have Zotero retrieve the citation information for the article.
3. You can tag, categorize, write notes, and otherwise make sense of your articles. It’s easy.
4. Zotero has a plug-in for Microsoft Word, so that I can use it to manage my citations and reference list when drafting a manuscript.
5. It’s relatively intuitive to use. And if there’s something you’re trying to do and can’t figure it out, simply Google it and you’ll likely find the answer quickly.
I felt compelled to write this quick update given that I still have people contact me and tell me how great my simple Excel 2007 spreadsheet is for organizing references. But it’s now official. I’m urging you to use Zotero for your next project. It’s so much better. I’m not an expert on other systems like EndNote or Mendeley, but Zotero has made such a big impression on me during the past two weeks that I’m confident to recommend it. It's to your benefit, of course, to explore the advantages and disadvantages of various tools. All I'm saying is that Zotero is working quite well for me. I'm thrilled with it.
I suggest getting used to Zotero by using it for one project. For example, use it for one manuscript or research project. That way, you won’t be feeling the need to change your entire system that you’ve been using. You’ll be able to learn the features and benefits of Zotero as you go through your first project.
And then—I’ll wager—you’ll be hooked. I’m pretty sure I am.