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Collect, organise and share your web research sources with Zotero

24 June 2014, Mike Williams

It’s extremely easy to research almost any topic online, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. You can be drowning in links and PDFs before you know it, and browser bookmarks simply aren’t enough to keep everything under control.

Zotero is a smarter solution for organising both online and offline research. It’s aimed at a professional audience who need a quick and easy way to create bibliographies and properly formatted citations, but the core technology really does have something for every web researcher.

At first, Zotero looks like just another bookmarking system. If you’re viewing an interesting site or document, just click an icon in your browser address bar (Firefox, Chrome and Safari are supported) and an item is added to the Zotero library. Or you might add a local document, maybe a PDF, just by dragging and dropping it onto the program.

All your research sources are listed in (and searchable from) your Zotero library

You’re not just adding a link, though. Zotero also understands the content and structure of many sites, and stores page metadata as well: title, author, abstract, publication, volume, issue, creation date, ISSN/ ISBN numbers. And this isn’t just about academic references. We also found the program correctly grabbed data from newspaper stories, YouTube videos and the Internet Movie Database, amongst other.

Any of these items may be annotated with your own text notes, tags and more. You’re able to organise them into folders. But the best part is that most of this content is indexed. If you’ve saved links for 100 IMDB movie pages, for instance, then typing an actor’s name in the search box immediately lists any hits. And if your library includes PDFs, they’ll be searched, too.

Your research library is stored centrally, on Zotero’s servers. You have to create a free account to set this up, but it only takes a moment, and they don’t need anything more than your email address. And once it’s done you’re able to view your current research from any device, sync files or links, add notes and more.

Academics can then go further still, using Zotero to quickly create CSL-based citations using a host of standard or journal-specific styles, even automatically generating a bibliography from the items used (the program includes Word and LibreOffice/ OpenOffice addons to make the process easier).

It’s an impressive system, and the only real issue is that Zotero’s free account offers a mere 300MB storage space, not a lot if you’re hoping to add several chunky PDFs. Basic upgrades aren’t cheap, either (even 2GB costs $20/ year), but if you like the technology then an unlimited storage plan is available for $120/ year.

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