A good reference manager can be incredibly helpful for your research. Many different options are available, but you should at least seriously consider Zotero.
Zotero launched its first public beta in the fall of 2006 as a Firefox extension.1 I started using it in the fall of 2007, thanks to some helpful input from Westminster Seminary’s writing center.
At that time, Zotero was useful, but in the years since, ongoing development has made it an even more robust and helpful tool. So, if you’re frustrated with your current system for managing your research, there are 8 reasons Zotero might be an excellent tool for you. Namely, Zotero
- is free;
- supports SBL, Chicago, and many other styles;
- is actively developed and provides exceptional help in the forums;
- integrates with Microsoft Word—and LibreOffice Writer;
- allows you to “set it and forget it”;
- allows you to store files with citation records;
- gives you easy ways to customize individual citations;
- makes it easy to switch citation styles; and
- allows you to improve your citation style.
1. Zotero is free.
Zotero happens to be free, as in zero cost to end users (e.g., “free books”). But it’s also free, as in Zotero doesn’t lock you into a proprietary system that limits what you can do with your own data (e.g., “free speech”):
Zotero has always guaranteed users complete access to their own data, but open source [= free as in “free speech”] means you don’t need to take our word for it. If the organization that runs Zotero disappeared tomorrow, or if we made a decision that didn’t put users’ interests first, others would be free to take Zotero’s source code and continue to maintain and improve it.2
These two types of freedom mean that Zotero has a low barrier to entry. You can give it a try and then get your data back out if you decide Zotero doesn’t work (or stops working) for you for whatever reason.
2. Zotero supports SBL, Chicago, and many other styles.
When you download Zotero, it comes with support for Chicago style built in. Adding support for SBL style is as easy as installing the style from the repository.3
(Or if you want to drop your email into this form while you’re reading this post, skip searching the repository, I’ll send the style straight to your inbox.)
Zotero also supports other biblical studies styles like those from Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Currents in Biblical Research, Tyndale Bulletin, and Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche. And the list keeps growing.
So, even if you need something a bit different from these, you can likely get close enough to make fairly few manual tweaks necessary at the end of your editing to get things just right.
3. Zotero is actively developed and provides exceptional help in the forums.
The Zotero forums are fabulous places to search for help on technical issues that you can’t find guidance about in the regular documentation.
When I come upon something I can’t get right, I routinely find someone has asked a similar question that’s helpful in clarifying what I need to do differently.
Even when I can’t immediately find what I’m looking for in the forums though, very seldom have I posted another question and not pretty promptly gotten a helpful response.
(Of course, when posting questions, you do have to try to state the issue as clearly and completely as possible. “I can’t get Zotero to work” isn’t going to be a great way of helping others in the forum help you with your issue.)
Going along with all of this, Zotero’s developers are active in the forums as well. In several cases, they’ve identified a question I’ve posted as related to a bug or need for additional nuance in the software or SBL style. And sure enough, a subsequent release of Zotero or the SBL style has cleared up the issue.
4. Zotero integrates with Microsoft Word—and LibreOffice Writer.
Remember when I mentioned “free books” and “free speech” above? Well, part of me would really like to use LibreOffice Writer rather than Microsoft Word for exactly this reason.
But there are several reasons—for another post—that I continue using Word for now. And Zotero integrates very nicely with both Word and Writer.
5. Zotero allows you to “set it and forget it.”
Especially with SBL style, it takes some time to learn the nuances of how to put information into Zotero so that you can get the proper output.
But the nice thing is that, once you’ve got a book or article input properly, you don’t have to worry about re-searching for how to compose that citation. You can simply research and write and let Zotero handle the jots and tittles of the citations.4
This doesn’t mean you can offload deep knowledge of SBL style to Zotero or any other platform. You still have to know what you need out of the software so that you can meet your style requirements.
But it does mean that you can focus on noticing and fixing anything that’s amiss. You don’t need to bother with everything that goes right—which the vast majority usually does.
6. Zotero allows you to store files with citation records.
Let’s say you add a journal article to your database. But you have a PDF copy of the article as well.
Where do you keep that copy? In Zotero, you can attach that PDF directly to the citation and so save everything in one place.5
Zotero also provides some cloud storage so that you can sync a minimal number of files among multiple devices. But it’s also pretty straight forward to extend this storage by one method or another. In some cases, you may even be able to do so for no additional cost to you.
7. Zotero gives you easy ways to customize individual citations.
SBL and other styles common to biblical studies aren’t known for being the simplest. And sometimes, they require citations of specific sources that are unique to those sources.
No software could possibly account for all the variables that might come up with such unique citations. But Zotero does provide a useful set of tags that allow you to customize the citations of individual resources or even individual notes. These tags allow you to make text
- italic or (if it’s already italic) roman,
- subscript, and
You can also turn text into small capitals or suppress Zotero’s default capitalization rules. And you can add these tags in your Zotero database—if you want them to apply to all citations of a given source. Or you can use the same tags in the citation dialog to format individual citations.
8. Zotero makes it easy to switch citation styles.
If you do any amount of academic writing for publication, it will eventually happen. You will get a piece turned down by a given journal or publisher. You’ll then need to decide whether to let the piece die on your computer or to revise it and send it elsewhere.
And if you decide to send it elsewhere, a different journal or publisher may well require you to use a different citation style. If Zotero already supports that style, Zotero can do a lot of the reformatting work “automagically” once you install the additional citation style.
Of course, you’ll still need to proofread what Zotero has done and correct any remaining issues. But some careful proofreading and corrections here and there definitely beat the chances you run with “find and replace” or the time you would spend manipulating your citations manually.
9. Zotero allows you to improve your citation style.
Zotero knows how to format citations because of what’s in a given citation style sheet. That style sheet is written in a language called, appropriately enough, “Citation Style Language” (CSL).6
If you’re not the type to tinker with such things, that’s perfectly fine. I wasn’t for a long time. But if you do run into something consistently that’s a bit amiss in a given style, you can definitely update the style so its output is more precise.7
CSL isn’t necessarily “easy” to pick up. But especially if you’re just needing to modify an existing style (rather than create one from scratch), it’s also not too difficult.
And with some persistence, you might find that a little time learning CSL is well spent. It may eliminate a good amount of editing work that you and others had been having to do manually.
A student of mine once observed that citation managers don’t substitute for knowing SBL or whatever other style well. But they can take a lot of the grunt work out of following those styles.
That’s about right. Following a given style guide is a good and necessary part of what writing involves in biblical studies. But then, none of us got into biblical studies so that we could follow the SBL Handbook of Style. 🙂
So it makes sense to consider how you can address your style requirements more efficiently and free yourself up to do the reading, research, and writing that only you can do.
And Zotero is an excellent option for a tool to help you do just this.