I was recently asked to write up some best practices for groups using Zotero, and I thought I’d share them here. While the language and specifics of these practices are all Zotero-centric, I’ve done very similar things with Mendeley and EndNote as well, though they don’t have standalone notes, so you have to make a well-named citation and use its notes fields to fulfill similar functions.
First off, it is worth it to pay for storage from Zotero. There are work-arounds using Box, but that adds a layer of complexity that I have seen go wrong when, for example, you have collaborators spread all over the place and not everyone is tech savvy or has library or IT support.
I’ve also seen people register a Zotero account and then share login credentials to that account with a group. This is not a good idea for a bunch of reasons. Everyone should have their own account and then be added to a group library.
With those two things as ground work, here are some things to consider as you launch a group project using Zotero. The larger your group or longer-term your project, the more these practices will matter.
Setting up the structure
- Create a space that serves as your “inbox” for new stuff, before it’s processed/corrected/tagged/
whatever. That way you can go merrily along collecting collecting collecting, but not mess up the organizational structure or lose your unprocessed stuff in the giant pool of processed stuff. If it were me, I’d make my own personal zotero library into my inbox area, and only move things to the Group library once it had its PDF associated, metadata cleaned up, etc. Alternatively, you could have a tag that you associate with new stuff so that you can gather it all together and process it.
- In the main Group library, have a standalone note that describes the workflow of the group and defines how you are using tags, folders, and “related” items in this group. For example, some people use folders for procedural steps and tags for topic categorization, some people do the opposite, and some people do something else entirely. But this note will make it clear to the whole group how folders, tags, and “related” items function in this space.
- In the main Group library, have a standalone note for tag definitions. Name it something that will guarantee it’s at the top of an alphabetical list (like _TagDefs). Apply every tag to this note (so that it comes up whenever any tag is selected). In that note, list each of your tags and a brief definition so that everyone on the project knows what it means and how to apply it. Whenever you create a new tag, be sure to update this tag definitions note and then add that tag to the note as well.
- In each sub-folder in the Group Library, have a standalone note that describes what that folder is meant for.
- If you’re going to use tags systematically, I suggest UNCHECKING the preference that automatically gathers subject headings from databases, because these are all over the place and will clutter up your tag list. All the other check boxes on that main screen of the preferences help, but this one doesn’t unless you really only use one database/catalog and it has good set of subject terms.
- Plan on not having too many tags/folders. “Too many” is subjective, of course, but once you get scores of them they become very difficult to scan through and select. They should hit that sweet spot of functioning to gather together useful chunks of items rather than having only 1 or 2 items per tag/folder or having nearly all your items in a tag/folder. Novices to tagging tend to come up with too many, and constantly add new ones, which really doesn’t help with organizing a group library.
- It can be useful to have a way of tracking procedures, either using tags or folders. These would be like “needs ILL” or “follow up” (which I use for things where there’s a gold mine of a bibliography that I know I’m going to want to go back to and start looking up and saving relevant items from the references).
- Save into your “inbox” space, however you’ve set that up. (Be aware that whatever folder is selected in Zotero, that’s where all your new saved items will go, so check this before going on a saving spree.)
- Check all the metadata Zotero pulled in when you save an item. Frequently there are capitalization/spelling/data errors that need to be corrected manually.
- If Zotero wasn’t able to pull in the PDF automatically, download and then drag the PDF in (and having the OpenURL resolver set up in preferences can help you with this — and if that didn’t sound like English to you, check out the instructions under “Making the “Library Lookup” option work like the library’s “Find It” button” in the top left-hand box on this guide for an example, though of course Carleton’s URL won’t work for other colleges).
- Once you’ve saved and cleaned up your item information, open the list of sub-items (the little triangle next to the item citation in Zotero) and right-click on the PDF, and then select “Rename File from Parent Metadata.” That way the PDF itself will have citation information in its file name, which saves headaches if you download it later on and end up with a million “out.pdf” or “1957ty3593.pdf” files on your computer.
- A single item can be saved to more than one sub-folder, which is far better than having multiple copies/versions of a single item.
- An often-overlooked function is the “related” function. This can link together versions of the same work, or an item with items it cites/is cited by, etc. In group work this helps other people see the connections that you’ve found between works. (It can be helpful to have a written definition of how people think of “related” so that, for example, someone doesn’t put all the books on cats together as “related” rather than just tagging them with the subject “cats.”)
So basically, the theme of all of this is to make it so that there’s explicit shared understanding of how to use the various functions, and then give every new item the TLC it needs in order to coexist with all the other items.
Have a favorite tip or practice? Leave it in the comments here!