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Do you Zotero?

Though the name sounds vaguely like it could be the latest dance/exercise craze, Zotero is actually a nifty research organizer and citation manager with several features that make it worth considering for use in teaching.

At first glance, Zotero is a very capable bibliographic reference manager that helps you keep track of articles, books, conference presentations, and web pages you might want to cite later. It works as a web browser plugin (for Firefox) or as a standalone application that connects to other web browsers (Chrome and Safari). The basic behavior is simple: visit any web page or a library catalog listing and then, when you want to add it to your reference library, simply click a button.

The Zotero library interface. The left pane contains the list of entries, organized by title and author. The right pane shows detailed bibliographic information for a selected item.
The Zotero library in all its bibliographic glory. Revel in the metadata!
The Zotero button as it appears in a web browser menu.
The Zotero button in action in the Firefox menu.

Zotero includes what are called ‘translators’ for many sites and types of information, allowing it to detect and store information about what you’re looking at. Did you find an interesting news article online? Just click the Zotero button in your web browser to add it to your library. Watch a video on YouTube? Click the Zotero button to add it to your library. Find a Creative Commons-licensed image on Flickr that you want to include in your next blog post?

View of Zotero's tags panel, showing a series of user-supplied tags associated with an article. These are, in order: 'art', 'interdisciplinary studies', 'neuroscience', 'object recognition' and 'visual indeterminacy'
Zotero’s information panel, showing tags for an individual library entry.

Zotero includes some features intended to let you make the items in your library more searchable and more useful in your research (or whatever else you plan to do with your collection). You can add descriptive tags or keywords, making it easier for you to later find items by common themes that make sense to you, even if they aren’t used in the original source. For example, I have a tag for “educational technology” which I use frequently for articles related to interesting software, tools, and instructional methods related in some way to the work I do at EvCC. In addition to tags, you can also write notes for each entry in your library. I sometimes use the notes area to write a very brief summary or abstract of the item, a habit I picked up years ago as a student and that I’ve found helps me recall what I’ve read in more detail.

But Zotero is more than just a tool for storing references to articles, books, and web pages you’ve read. It also provides various plugins for exporting records to Microsoft Word, which makes it possible to generate bibliographies, inline references, and footnotes in a variety of standard formats. No more wrangling the entries on a works cited page by hand!

Teaching with Zotero

Zotero’s bibliographic management features alone make it a great way to introduce students to effective research and citation methods. Learning to use Zotero effectively reinforces good research and writing practices. I can imagine providing students with a scaffolded research and writing assignment that guides them through the entire process of identifying and organizing sources, annotating those sources in the Zotero library, and then drafting an essay that cites some or all of those sources.

What really makes Zotero stand out as a teaching tool, however, is the collaborative potential of Zotero groups. Groups provide a way to share a single Zotero library with many people, so that they all may view and contribute to the library. (See the end of this post for a very brief illustrated guide to setting up a new group in three easy steps.) For example, if you were to create a Zotero group for a course, you could assign students to add annotated articles about course-related topics in the news. Or you could simply use it as a shared repository of resources–articles, books, videos, images, podcasts–for the class, one that can continue to grow throughout the quarter as new items as you and your students add to it.

One caveat about Zotero groups: this feature does require students to sign up for a free account. This is something I’m normally reluctant to ask students to do. Unlike many educational technologies, though, Zotero is developed and maintained by an highly regarded non-profit academic organization (George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media) rather than a for-profit company intent on mining data about its users. That sponsorship goes a long way toward assuaging any doubts I would ordinarily have about asking students to create accounts with a third-party service.

In a future post I’ll write more about how Zotero can enhance a range of classroom activities, but for now why not give it a try and see what creative possibilities you can find for it in your own teaching?

Getting started with a new Zotero group in three simple steps

Step 1: Create a group

Once you have a free Zotero account, creating a new group and inviting your students to join it is a fairly straightforward process. First, you’ll choose a name for the group and select one of three options determining how public or private the group will be.

Screenshot of a web page showing the first step in creating a new Zotero group
Step 1: Creating a Zotero group is as simple as giving it a name and choosing whether it will be open to public viewing and participation.

Step 2: Update group settings

Next, you’ll be asked to update just a few group settings that control who is permitted to view and edit the group’s shared library.

Screenshot of Zotero group settings page, showing options for selecting group type and for controlling who is permitted to edit the group's shared library
Step 2: Updating the group’s settings to control who can view and edit items in the group’s shared library.

Step 3: Invite members to join the group

All that’s left is to invite individual members to join the group. If your students have already created Zotero accounts, you can simply use their Zotero usernames, separated by commas.

Screenshot of the Zotero page for inviting people to join the shared group.
Step 3: Invite other Zotero users to join the group.

Alternatively, you can use students’ email addresses to invite them to create new accounts that will give them access to the newly created group. Having students create accounts in advance is probably slightly preferable, albeit a bit less convenient, because it ensures that students use an email address of their choosing (a small matter, but potentially important for students who don’t wish to use their EvCC-provided account for some reason).