Using Referencing Software to Manage the Academic Writing Process: A Drumbeat for Zotero

Academic writing is an indispensable activity every scholar must engage in. This is more so because the responsibility of any scholar worth his salt is the generation and conservation of knowledge. The new knowledge generated is normally communicated to the members of the academic community in the form of a research report. Research reports must adhere to certain standards that make it possible to enforce the principles of the scientific method. The scientific method describes a body of techniques and principles for investigating real world phenomena with the view of adding to the corpus of knowledge. Academic writing therefore demands a strict writing style coupled with careful handling and acknowledgement of sources.

While there is a difference between plagiarism and misuse of sources, lack of source acknowledgement resulting from poor management of source documents could be construed as plagiarism. Sometimes, writers especially students fall in the rut of plagiarism due to the difficulties implicit in the manual management of sources. With the advent of referencing software, writers can now automate the management of sources for efficient citations and referencing. In this article, I will identify some of the important tools provided by referencing software that can be leveraged for efficient academic writing. I will put special emphasis on Zotero because it is open source. This means you can simply download and use it without dipping a dime.

The tools provided by Zotero will help you accomplish most of the tasks in the academic writing process. Here are some of the tasks you will easily accomplish using Zotero.

1. You can create a library of sources. Be they journal articles, books, newspapers, websites etc. The library can be divided into collections. Each collection could contain sources for a particular research project or even an article you are writing. A library can be created by adding sources manually or grabbing them from the internet. You can also create a local or cloud backup of your library. A library once in the cloud can be shared through a user group.

2. Zotero automates the citation of sources once they are in the library. Once citations are done, the references are generated automatically in whichever referencing style you prefer. You can further generate annotated bibliography.

3. Zotero provides sorting and searching facilities in case your library overgrows simple scrolling to locate source items.

4. For those who like taking notes while reading-which most scholars do, Zotero is armed with a note taking tool that you can then attach to the article you have read.

5. You will find locating sources from the net by using an item’s ISBN, DOI or PMID to be faster than typing titles or author names. Zotero provides a tool for searching items using the above mentioned identifiers.

6. Remember you can store your library of sources in the cloud – really a Zotero server far away from you. To ensure that the cloud copy of your library is up to date with the local copy, Zotero provides a sync tool. The sync tool can be automated or manually managed. You loss you local copy through any threat or vulnerability, just log into the Zotero server and your library is restored.

7. Zotero integrates neatly with most word-processors. The integration is seamless in Ms Word which I suspect you use mostly for your writing. So, no switching back and forth.

Zotero like all software applications has certain weakness. These are:

1. Zotero does not work with other internet browsers especially those that are proprietary. This is mainly because Zotero is open source. If I did not mention already, Zotero works with Firefox. Most of the tools in Zotero are created by extension developers since Firefox exposes all its underlying functionality unlike proprietary browsers like IE.

2. Zotero can not currently import items from bibliographies in text documents. This state may remain for sometime due to the large range of potential formats.

I will stop here for the disadvantages. Usually the advantages should weigh down the disadvantages. You realize that the disadvantages are mainly technical and may not hinder you from taking advantage of Zotero. There are other referencing software like EndNote which is proprietary or rather commercial. Two years ago, when I wanted to buy EndNote, the nearest retailer was in Uganda. I discovered Zotero before I could make an order.

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