Zotero is an incredible piece of software. It is ostensibly a citation manager for academic researchers, but goes far beyond that. I don’t think it gets enough attention outside of academic circles, so here is an entire blog post appreciating how good it is.

I discovered Zotero early last year from a random blog on the Internet. For a while I had been searching for a tool to organize my digital reading habits - consisting mostly of blog posts and academic papers - but it had never occurred to me to look for citation managers. It was immediately clear to me from the landing page that Zotero did everything I needed in one integrated solution, so I tried it out, and found that it not only did what it says on the tin, but had a few pleasant surprises in store. It quickly replaced all the other apps I had for similar purposes.

Until Zotero showed up, I was using a combination of a read-it-later app, a TODO-list app, and a PDF reader for reading digital content. This had several major downsides:

  1. Content is read and then forgotten about, without a good way to review them (or retain knowledge). These apps emphasize the difference between “unread/todo” and “read/done” items, and hides items that have been read or done. While this makes a lot of sense in the right context, it isn’t a good feature if you want to review what you’ve read before.
  2. Read-it-later apps have clunky built-in reading interfaces that don’t always display web content correctly, and simply doesn’t support PDF documents. You must use a dedicated PDF reader and your browser’s rendering engine. Therefore there is no central place for notes, highlights, annotations, or organization structure. They have to be managed separately in a notebook somewhere, or done in individual apps.
  3. Organization features are lacking. There are tags, lists, nested lists, but rarely all of them in one app (Remember The Milk being the exception here, which is why I chose it over other TODO apps).

Zotero solves all of these problems. It’s perfect for saving papers and web pages to read, organizing them into folders by topic, adding tags, reading and annotating PDFs, reviewing sources after the first read, and needless to say, citing them in written content.

Arguably, the problems listed above were important to me because what I actually wanted to do was research, not casual reading. A research assistant helps you do research! But this is also something that using Zotero helped me realize - most articles I’d like to read later contains content I’d like to learn, which means it’s more than reading for entertainment. Even if I’m just casually browsing the orange site on a Sunday and saving articles to read later, the better way to consume them is to put them into a basket of articles of a similar topic, and read them consecutively as a mini-research project. If I just finished the article on the spot, I’d proceed to forget about it very quickly. A dedicated period (e.g. over several days or weeks) of focused reading on a single topic results in much better knowledge retention, a more complete and nuanced picture of the domain, a tangible amount of learning, etc.

I also found that Zotero noticeably enhanced my ability to do research. Proper organization of high-quality source material allows me to quickly read through relevant literature and internalize important concepts, effectively expanding the scope of knowledge I’m able to keep in my mind. Another way of looking at this, perhaps stretching the comparison between hardware and brain function, is that with limited RAM / short-term memory, spatial and temporal locality / concentrated research on a single topic improves processing / thinking efficiency :-). The most concrete outcome of this is probably the memory order post I wrote earlier. As blog posts go, the amount of materials for that article was quite significant - as evidenced by the reference section. Without Zotero, it’s unlikely I would’ve had enough time, patience, or mental capacity to finish it.

Zotero is also more than a reading list manager. One can use it to organize basically all content. Beyond papers and blogs, I use it as a watch-it-later app for technical talks, a reading list for books, a catalog of technical domains I’m interested in (akin to a knowledge graph), and an RSS feed manager. There are surely many more use cases I have yet to discover.

Zotero also works well on all platforms, including platforms that tend to be less well-supported like tablets and Linux. Content is synced across devices. It is open-source and free. There is active development and a user forum with frequent developer feedback. I have never enjoyed a piece of productivity software this much, and only wish I’d learned about it sooner.