Tool Review: Zotero, mastery of references and citations with a simple click!

Being a student comes with many responsibilities and requires you to develop extra-curricular skills. A few examples of these are, researching information, extracting data, writing texts and so on and so forth. Usually, each student has his strength and weaknesses and manages to cope with his lesser skills by working with teammates that do better. However there is one thing, one skill that all students seem to dread without contest and that is writing a proper reference, citation or bibliography. Getting this right is, without doubt, the bane of every individual’s experience as a student. Personally, I struggled with it until I got to university, until I found out the magnificent tool that I am going to talk to you about in this review. This tool is called Zotero, and it is a game changer when it comes to citations, bibliographical references and research.

If you are anything like myself and the hundreds of students I have come across, you may have experienced what it is like to feel the stress of losing points on an essay for having made a mistake in your reference list. It’s usually the part students leave for last in an essay because they know they’re going to have a bad time doing it. Alas! Zotero comes to the aid of all anxious students and takes all of that pain away.

If only there was a single way of writing a bibliography, then one could argue that it is simply a matter of practice in order to get it into your head, but the fact is that if you compare a linguistic student’s reference section with a literature student’s, you will find that things aren’t written down the same way. Zotero takes care of that with a simple click, as I will explain below in the functionalities’ description. If you wish for a quick overview, here is a great review made by PCworld.com, a well respected online guide to every kind of virtual tools and more.

Zotero was originally a project brought together by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and it was funded by the  Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  It is an easy to use tool that requires almost no effort, truly a no-brainer in a field that usually requires much thoroughness. Zotero can be used as a web tool by synching it with your web browser or as a standalone tool that you can have on your computer’s desktop. It’s main purpose is to facilitate the acquisition of sources and it serves as a library that can retain a great amount of saved data. It is completely free of charge and fast to download.

Now let’s understand how Zotero works. First the web tool: while you are doing research, Zotero stays passively ready for you to use it. Say you are reading an online journal, or an academic paper in the form of an online PDF version or again a website page, and you happen to find some of what you read relevant for your research. What Zotero enables you to do is to select the relevant piece of text and save it in a quotation form. But that’s not all! Zotero automatically saves the source with the quotation and all other pertinent information that needs to be accounted for in the reference section of any research. It literally does it all for you with one simple click. So this is for the web tool’s main utility, now let’s talk about the standalone tool. Zotero’s desktop tool does all of what the web tool can do with a wider possibilities. Say you are looking for a book or any sort of source and all the technical info associated with the source itself(date, author, edition, etc.) but you only have the ISBN or DOI or PMDI; Zotero has an built-in functionality that allows you to input the ISBN or DOI or PMDI and, by accessing the internet, will find all technical information on the document that you seek. It then stores this information on the main interface where you can access it and view it with ease. But wait, there’s more! By right clicking on your newly acquired source you can create a bibliographical reference. Selecting this functionality then takes you to a new menu in which you may chose to have the document cited in citation form or as a bibliographical reference. Furthermore, it lets you choose from a variety of format(APA, MLA, IEEE, etc.) then, Zotero produces your reference note in your clipboard and all that is left for you to do is to go into your research document, paste(ctrl+v) and voilà! It shows up in a format that looks exactly the way it should without having you break a sweat.

With all this being said, I am left with one last question to cover: how is Zotero a relevant tool in an ESL classroom? To be honest, I feel torn between my student perspective and my role as a future teacher. Therefore, in order to reconcile the two perspectives and to keep my mental peace, I have come up with a fair trade. Firstly, if I were an elementary level teacher, I would not even consider introducing the students to Zotero because I do feel the importance of having them learn the basics of research papers formats. As a teacher, it will be my responsibility to explain the theory behind note taking and research discipline, including the notions of bibliographical and reference formats. Thereon, I believe that Zotero would be a great tool to introduce to senior high school students as an ITC tool. As a teacher this is one of my responsibility to introduce my students to technological tools in order to facilitate and lighten their work. After having given my students a first research assignment without Zotero and having corrected them on their reference sections, their citations, then and only then would I introduce them to Zotero. My point being that I personally don’t want to take off points from a good piece of work for such benign reasons and also I want them to spend time writing rather than stressing over the format. By having them understand the purpose and importance of a well written bibliography and citations, and by giving them this tool to work with, I would therefore place the responsibility of their success in their hands rather than have them feel unjustly marked if they fail to it properly. This is what profoundly exasperated me as a student because even though it is a student’s responsibility to be thorough, kids don’t see it that way, they feel like their efforts are and I don’t want my student to feel that way. With the rules and formats being set and with Zotero as their tool, it would make it so that there is no more excuse for them to fail at writing a proper reference section or proper citations. I personally think that Zotero would help students feel less burdened by the idea of a research and would have them concentrate more over the content than the container. This would heighten motivation, I am sure of it.

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