Zotero: Free reference management software

"I told you NOT to use proprietary software even if our university pays for it!" I never understood why our university pays for proprietary reference management software. Perhaps some old people in the administration still live in the 90s of the last millennium when EndNote was de-facto the only decent reference management software for WYSYWIG text processors. But those times are long gone. Finally, our university is at least dumping one of its proprietary reference managers:

  Free as in beer, or really free? But our IT (or libraries?) still pedals the commercial EndNote, and two free, but also proprietary solutions: Mendeley and EndNote Online. I have tried them all, and none of them has any significant advantage over Zotero. Endnote has once crashed both my Microsoft Word and EndNote reference file beyond repair in a critical writing phase (resubmission with a deadline). According to EndNote, this should not be possible, but what do they know about Microsoft Word? Admittedly, this is already a few years back, and apparently, crashes have become much less frequent since. Sadly, in the official email announcement, the responsible librarian from our university fails to distinguish between Zotero and Mendeley/EndNote Online. Mendeley and EndNote Online are only free as in free beer. You do not pay for them, but you are not free to distribute or modify them. Mendeley and EndNote Online can disappear overnight if the company that owns them decides to scrap them. Zotero is very different from that: Even if the current developers of Zotero abandon development, it will not disappear since it is owned by nobody and everybody. Realtime online collaborative editing Zotero is also free as in beer, but it is free in many more dimensions than Mendeley or EndNote Online. Besides, and perhaps most importantly: In a world of real-time collaborative online editing, Zotero is not only the superior solution over all the other competitors, but it is in fact the ONLY free solution available at the moment. Yes: there are Sciwheel and Paperpile, both of which work with Google Docs. In fact, Paperpile was the first reference manager to work with Google Docs. Sciwheel is only usable in a meaningful way when you subscribe to the Pro version (unless you limit yourself to writing three manuscripts). And Paperpile doesn't even have a free tier and 1 month is NOT enough to evaluate a reference management tool. Unless you have gone through the complete process of writing a paper (which can take anything between a month and 2 years), you just have not encountered all the problems that can pop up during the process. The revision(s) are an entirely thing on its own, since you typically convert the life bibliography into static text before you submit (called "unlinking" in Zotero). For the revision, you need to go back to the "linked" version of the manuscript. I have an opinion about Paperpile, because our lab licensed Paperpile for about 2 years (before Zotero published their Google Docs plugin). Sciwheel or Paperpile charge you a yearly subscription fee, while the EndNote license is a single payment. But given that EndNote is in version 20, you definitely will need to pay for updates/upgrades sooner or later.  

  • Endnote is not truly cross-platform. it does not run on Linux and it does not even support LibreOffice on the Mac (only the legacy OpenOffice, which nobody should use anymore).
  • EndNote Online has only a limited number of citation styles and you cannot add your own styles
  • Zotero is the only one, that supports online collaborative editing. It has a plugin for Google Docs, bit also works with Word and LibreOffice. This is big because no other real-time collaborative online editing software has any functional reference software management solution (except for some LaTex solutions). The inbuilt Word 365 reference manager is a joke, and there is no possibility to use any external tool with it.

What are the downsides of Zotero?

  • It is rather slow when used with Google Docs. If you have inserted the bibliography into your document and you have maybe 50 or more citations, then inserting a new citation triggers an update, which can last for quite a while. But hey, there is no need to insert the bibliography until the very last moment when you are about to finish your writing.
  • The free online storage of Zotero is only 300 MB. Admittedly, you only need more if you want to save the full-text versions of your references. However, if you have access to a WebDAV server, you can host the full-text versions yourself. From the university IT, you can get a basic VM server with enough storage space for free, and host your full-text documents there. Don't forget to explicitly open the firewall to the VPN network and to Eduroam, otherwise, you won't have access from outside the university or even inside the university when you use the WLAN.

Neat stuff you only can do with Zotero

  • Have your own online libraries publicly visible (to the world or to a group). Here is my public Zotero library: https://www.zotero.org/groups/1329486/the_jeltsch_laboratory/library/. With EndNote Online libraries, you can only share with other EndNote users, and you are never allowed to share the full-text. With Zotero, you can do exactly that: share the full-text documents with others.
  • You can push a list of publications to your website, which is automatically updated whenever you add a new reference to your Zotero library.
  • Play around with style files. Ok, this is not true: you can do so also with Mendeley and EndNote...