Zotero for academics: collaborative libraries

Development Policy16 May 2010Janelle Ward

Online research collaboration can take many forms: data sharing, collaborative writing, or more informal methods of peer review. But what if you could get an inside look at a researcher’s resources, and see all the materials that inspired them to create a current project?

Step one: digital references. About five years ago, I first discovered the joys of digitizing academic references. I was introduced to Endnote, a software tool for publishing and managing bibliographies. Beyond the convenience of tagging various publications for easy retrieval, Endnote also allowed me to automatically add references to papers created in Microsoft Word, and in any one of many referencing styles. This turned out to be a huge time-saver, particularly when preparing papers for submission to journals.

But my library, though more convenient for my own research, was a private collection. And any new research I conducted was done on an individual basis. The number of new journal articles or book chapters I could consume was generally limited to the time I could put into such research efforts.

Step two: collaborative libraries. But then I discovered Zotero. Not only does it provide Endnote features like collection, management and citation, but it functions as Firefox extension that allows me to share resources with other interested parties. When I say resources I mean a variety of research sources – from web pages to newspaper articles to podcasts.

Beyond collaboration, users can work locally with research materials and automatically sync data between multiple computers: handy for academics like me who split their time between home and office-based research (not to mention a Mac and a PC).

Although I have converted my Endnote library into Zotero and often update my references via its format, I still have a lot to learn. It will be interesting to follow Zotero and its competitors to examine how such tools are providing a collaborative outlet for academics to share their resources. Perhaps this form of citation management can be seen as first step towards collaborative research practices.