Software review: Zotero compared with EndNote

For those of you who don’t know, Zotero is an extension for the Firefox browser that acts as a citation manager. First introduced two years ago, it has quickly gained popularity as a cost-free alternative to commercial citation managers such as EndNote and RefWorks.

One of the main strengths of Zotero is the ease with which it allows you to save the citations you come across while browsing the web. When there are citations on the page you’re visiting, whether it be part of an OPAC, Google Scholar, or even Amazon, an icon will appear in Firefox’s address bar. Click that icon and Zotero will automatically save all the citation information available (or give you the option of which citations to save, if there are multiple citations on the page) into your Zotero database. From there, you can manipulate and organize your citations in a number of ways – add notes and tags, create “collections” for different projects, edit citations, and more.

Once it’s time to put your citations into action, the plug-in for Microsoft Word allows you to drop them straight into your paper, both in the body of your text and in the bibliography (in the style of your choice, naturally).

At McGill, the most popular citation manager is EndNote, since McGill students are able to download it for free. EndNote offers many of the same features as Zotero, so I decided to test them out side by side. I created two mock essays that both used the same citations. I both collected the citations and inserted the inline references and bibliographies using Zotero for one and EndNote for the other. Clearly, this test only scratches the surface of the features available in these programs, but I believe it is a realistic scenario in terms of how they might typically be used. Here are the results of my informal comparison:

I set both programs to use APA style, and although they both performed well, neither produced perfect formatting in the bibliography. Both programs occasionally included information that is considered superfluous according to APA style, and both occasionally omitted necessary information. In terms of creating citations and bibliographies, both programs were easy to use (through the Word plug-ins) and produced reasonably accurate documents.

In terms of compiling the citations within the programs themselves, Zotero was easier to use. When using EndNote, it was easy to import citations from databases and from Google Scholar, more difficult from the McGill catalogue, and impossible from Amazon; when using Zotero, it was simple to import citations from all these locations. I also appreciated the simplicity of Zotero’s integration with Firefox, which minimizes the number of programs running at once.

Overall, my recommendations are as follows:

  • Zotero is strong enough that anyone looking to start using citation management software would be well advised to choose Zotero, unless there is a compelling reason to use EndNote, or a compelling reason not to use Firefox.
  • The two programs are similar enough that anyone already comfortable using EndNote should not switch, unless they are paying to use EndNote, in which case they should certainly consider Zotero as a free alternative.
  • Since it’s free and easy to use, anyone who’s curious should go ahead and give Zotero a try; however, be aware that when Zotero and EndNote are both installed, the automatic export feature in Google Scholar and some databases will always export to Zotero, so be sure to disable Zotero when using EndNote.

Edit: I almost forgot to point out that Zotero has been in the news lately – Thomson Reuters, producers of EndNote, is suing George Mason University, producers of Zotero, because Zotero allows users to convert EndNote’s proprietary files into an open source format. For more information and commentary, see Jason Puckett and Caveat Lector.