Home > Uncategorized > Why Zotero is Superior to Evernote for Research

Why Zotero is Superior to Evernote for Research

At Juvenile Instructor a while back, Ben posted about why he uses Evernote for his dissertation research, instead of, for example, Zotero (aka, “the bad guys”). I was all in, because I was an Evernote guy through and through. However, a few weeks back, I ran into the limitations of Evernote for my own research and had to rethink what programs/software I would use while researching and writing my dissertation (I’m just barely starting, so jumping ship was still possible). And after fiddling around with different products for a while, I became a complete Zotero convert, and am now ready to praise its virtues from the rooftops. I was just explaining to an Evernote user yesterday why Zotero is superior, and decided I should bring my missionary efforts online. 

Let me first lay-out my research needs and tools. I use a lot of online databases, both for primary sources (ECCO, EEBO, e.g.) and secondary sources (JSTOR, Project MUSE). I’m not a smartphone, iPad guy, and do all my research from a single laptop. I don’t need cloud space for my PDFs. 

So, why Zotero?

1. Zotero’s free. No biggie, right, since Evernote’s free too? Well, unless you plan to actually store serious data. Then Evernote’s 60MB/month free space becomes not so free very quickly. I was downloading a lot of PDFs and needed them easily available to be read and marked-up, and Evernote just couldn’t hold that amount of space. Granted, Evernote is a cloud-based service, and that’s about as good as could be expected from a could-based server, but it simply wasn’t working for me. Zotero offers 500MB of space, which isn’t much, but it does keep all your entries online for free (just not attachments). 

2. Zotero is a bibliographic database. This is huge difference. While Evernote’s capacious range can hold images, text, and web articles easily, this range makes it a blank canvas. Zotero, on the other hand, is designed specifically for research, so it is ready to organize title, author, place of publication, etc. Then, I can publish those entries as a works cited page, reference list, etc., according to different style guides.

3. Zotero integrates with online databases. Remember ECCO and JSTOR? If I’m looking at a work from ECCO, or an article from JSTOR, or even a book from Google Books, it just takes a click of a button to download that bibliographic information to my Zotero database. Granted, it’s not a perfect transition from ECCO (author names usually don’t make it through) but it gets the full title, which is huge for 18C books. Plus, JSTOR is not only seamless, but it will send a full-text PDF of that article to Zotero and attach it to the appropriate entry, saving me about 4 steps of trying to open, download, name, and organize all my PDF articles–which starts adding up when you’re using dozens of articles.

4. Zotero integrates with writing programs. Zotero has a great integration with Microsoft Word. Now, instead of typing out the footnotes long hand, I can get Zotero to do the work for me. It even works for Scrivener, which I’m pretty sure will be my writing program of choice for the dissertation, though not quite as well (and it’s a bit tricky switching everything to Word when I need to actually publish the monster). Still, any time I don’t have to deal with style guides is time well spent.

5. Zotero allows for easy PDF annotation. This is where being a laptop guy separates me from Ben, who did a lot of his annotating on his iPad, and this is where Evernote really fell short. Hard as I tried, I could not figure out a way to get Evernote to open up a PDF, let me annotate it (I use Skim, a great free PDF software for Apple), and then let me save it back to Evernote with those annotations. Perhaps there is a way, but it wasn’t intuitive, that’s for sure. With Zotero, I simply click on the bibliographic entry I want, the attached PDF will open in Skim, I make my annotations, I save it, and it’s all there if I need to open it again. 

6. Zotero lets you organize your materials  better. One of the great things about Evernote is its “tag” function, along with its base-level notebooks, allowing you to organize your data in many different clusters. Zotero also has a tag function. But even more helpful, IMO, is Zotero’s “related” function. Here, I can “relate” bibliographic entries to one another, making connections between different works. Why is that useful? Say I’m researching Joseph Addison’s Cato, and I got my primary-source entry all loaded up, and now I’m starting to download a bunch of articles on the play. With “related,” I can make a link to every secondary-source entry I have that deals with Cato in any fashion. This way, when I want to review the literature on Cato, all the works I need to look at are already listed right there, with the PDF easily available. Granted, I could simply make a tag for “cato” in Evernote, or Zotero, but this would be trickier with primary works without such conspicuous titles (“Poems Arising on Subjects in the West Indies,” for instance). “Related” is a big help here.

7. Zotero generally keeps everything organized. When I began doing research, I started to become overwhelmed at all the documents I had, and couldn’t figure out how to keep track of everything. Because Zotero can hold PDFs, and because it can hold bibliographic data, it manages all your sources so much better than a computer folder or even Evernote could. For instance, I have a Zotero folder of “Primary Sources.” Let’s say rather than alphabetical order, I want to see what they look like ordered by publication date. Boom, done. Let’s say I want to cluster them by authors. Again, done. You simply can’t get that type of organizational flexibility from non-bibliographic programs.

Wow, this list ended up being longer than I expected! Again, I love Evernote, and still use it a lot for other tasks, but Zotero is superior in so many ways for intensive research that it’s really no comparison. It’s not the program for everyone, of course, and it has its limitations. Accessing Zotero PDFs from outside the program is a pain. I’ll probably have to clean up a lot of references before their publishable. It doesn’t have the greatest note-taking tool, and it’s hard to review notes quickly (Evernote is better at that). It’s also hard to attach images to bibliographic entries (like a screenshot of a passage from Google Books, e.g.). While Zotero offers 500 MB of cloud-based space, that’s not very much for PDFs, though there are ways of hacking Zotero to make it connect to your own cloud server. I hear that Sente is better for hard sciences, and I know some people really like Papers (though it seems like Papers is more for people who can’t get enough of Apple-based interfaces). But for its price, for its integration with other programs/browsers, and for its organizing features, Zotero is really worth serious consideration.

Conclusion: If you use a lot of PDFs, a lot of online databases, and do a lot of PDF annotation and other research on a single computer, Zotero is probably perfect for you.

Categories: Uncategorized
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