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Published December 7, 2014 | Multidisciplinary

Zotero – A New Paradigm for Citation

Zotero conquers Saint Lawrence!

Five years ago, when Denis saw that Zotero was free and developed by a university, he realized that it was not like a lot of software that comes from a start-up company where you don’t know whether it’s going to be there in two years or whether they have a bare bones free version, and then you have to pay for full service. He also thought that the way that it was designed as a plugin in Firefox was the way to go! It’s really easy. With just one or two clicks, you get your references in. And you have a choice of referencing styles, as well as an integration with Word! He started to use it to collect some of his references in his courses. And then at a Social Sciences Department meeting one day, he talked about it and realized that our students should all begin to use it!

And at the same time, Daniel who had been experimenting for some time in class with the light version of a proprietary software found out about Zotero as well. It took us a few years after Denis started using it before we all decided to adopt it in the Initiation to Methodology Class (IM). This was a policy of the department beginning in 2013. Not everybody did it last year, but in 2014, it’s across the board in IM. Although I’m not teaching IM this term, my understanding is that all students coming to Saint Lawrence in Social Sciences are now introduced to Zotero. I personally take it for granted in my other classes and simply refer my students to it as a powerful reference manager. I have never demonstrated its use in a class other than methodology (IM). When I ask students to write papers, I don’t mind nor check if they use it or not. I simply suggest that getting used to it will be a worthwhile addition to their competencies and will help save a lot of time in cegep, university and in their future professional life. But, it’s been decided for students that we should show this to them and many of them are really grateful that we’re promoting it.

Denis mentions there is a challenge in the beginning when you’re introducing the software. It’s a technical challenge. Students don’t necessarily understand that they have to use a password and that they have to remember that password if they want to be able to have access to their database. It’s essential once the bibliography database has been created. The beauty of the program is that you can work on the system here at school, but you can also have a copy installed on your laptop or at home on your computer and everything is always in synch. So basically the program works in the cloud.

Daniel mentions that the real challenge when you’re working with students is to make them understand what an item type is. For them the difference between a journal, newspaper or magazine is not obvious, but does affect how you enter information into Zotero and how it produces references. You actually have to invest time to help students or provide them with clues that will help them classify the title of the source properly.

Daniel adds that the problem is not Zotero, it’s the students who are not really that good with technology. There are some students who are really good, but many of them are lost just with information technology in general. It’s like when they want to use a page break in Word, and they just go Enter, Enter, Enter, Enter, Enter – to start a new page. There are so many students that just don’t understand the workings of software that the school should recognize its responsibility to give them skills in this area as the Social Sciences Department has done with its policy on Zotero.

Enthusiastic Student Adopters of Zotero

Students love Zotero almost from the minute they understand how they can use the software to produce all the citations they want. If we ask for citations using APA style, they select APA style and the files that they want, and it’s in APA. Another teacher asks for the same references using a different style – no problem – you don’t even have to look at the style manual! You just select MLA, and it’s done.

Then, of course, there is the ethical question of whether students using Zotero grow to understand the idea of intellectual property and the importance of giving people credit for their own work. Zotero helps students insert citations; it doesn’t discuss the ethical principles of citation. Zotero will not help students understand why it’s important to cite a work, just how you should do it – manually or with the computer.

When we’re teaching students in IM how to use Zotero, they’re being exposed to the concept of citation. They’re cegep students in the process of turning into adults. Daniel feels that the tool becomes helpful conceptually because citing sources is not a major hassle anymore. It can be done very quickly, but there’s still a personal involvement required from the students. They have to be honest; they have to understand the importance of citations. For Daniel, the importance of referencing and knowing, showing your sources, is something that you teach to students beyond the mechanics.

Using Zotero Beyond References

Zotero is a wonderful tool to add references to student work, but it can be la lot more than this.

You can actually use it to write notes. When you’re doing a research paper you can add your notation directly into your text. It’s also possible to use it to do collaborative work. When you create a group on the Zotero website, you can for example, ask your students to create their own account on the Zotero website and then to create a group and share their resources with you. When you go to your Zotero, all your students are visible, and you can see what kind of references they’re using! Students can also create shared accounts to pool their references.

The Profweb Digital Tools Section has an excellent article on the mechanics of using Zotero. Teaching your students to use Zotero is a skill that many of them will find useful for the rest of their academic careers and beyond.

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