Zotero for Literature Reviews

If you've ever tried working with several different PDFs simultaneously, you may have discovered a significant frustration. Even on a relatively large screen, one can only look at a couple of PDFs at a time. This can make comparing information in disparate journal articles somewhat frustrating.  More than once, I have found myself reverting to printing the articles I want to compare, and then spreading the papers out on my desk.

If that's what I need to do, I'll still do it. But I've discovered a quick and easy way to make that a little less necessary. I found that one of the reasons I print PDFs is because I need to keep track of which article is written by whom. When capturing journal articles from EBSCO, for example, the filename for the PDF can be nonsensical.

This is one of the many places where Zotero can bring a lot of sanity into the process. I've discovered that Zotero is especially useful in managing annotations, keeping track of PDF names, and making life a little easier in the analysis of journal articles.


I've mentioned this before, but I've grown quite fond of collecting my annotations for sources in Zotero. I keep these in the "Notes" section of each source. I find that I prefer to arrange my notations in the following order...

  1. Copy and pasted quotations - I really dislike opening a PDF just to see if I can find a highlighted quote. If I am going to highlight something on a PDF, it makes just as much sense to copy and past the quotation into the Notes section of the annotation. I follow each paste with the page number from the source.
  2. Summary - I tend to write a paragraph listing the primary thesis, methodology, and findings for each source I'm evaluating. I find that this summary annotation makes sifting through lots of PDFs a little more efficient, since I don't need to open each one to remember what was in the article.
  3. Reflection - These are notes I write to myself, usually in the form of observations, evaluations, or questions I have of the source. Sometimes a scholar will use a methodology that I want more clarity about. Other times, I'll note limitations to a study that are not clear in the article. Very often, when I am reflecting on the source, I will add a final line of how this source fits with my own research question.

Here's an example of an annotated source for a project I worked on this last summer. Note that the reflection is really specific to the thesis of the literature review and research question of the project I was working on.

Renaming PDFs

When I capture PDFs from EBSCO, the file names are often different from the bibliographic information. This can make it difficult to sort through various PDFs when several are open at the same time (they have names like EBSCO134561). I choose to rename the PDFs from the metadata, which can be a pretty easy task if the metadata is already in Zotero. Here's an example...

The PDF name for this source is "untitled - EJ966132.pdf" When it is open with other PDFs, it can be very difficult to remember which source is which.

By right clicking the PDF, and choosing "Rename File from Parent Metadata," the file is renamed to match the source...

As long as the metadata is available in Zotero, this renaming is extremely easy, and makes searching the desktop for the open file a bit easier as well...

Tags and Folders

Zotero allows the user to organize sources into folders, which can be useful for smaller projects. When the project is much larger, these sources can be difficult to navigate. Consider using tags attached to sources for faster sorting. Zotero assigns the publisher's key-words as tags in the metadata, but you are free to add additional tags as well.

When searching for sources, list the tags that are preferred in the search tool. This kind of search can narrow the field significantly, and allow you to work from a subset of sources with relative ease.

I've found that keeping things centralized in Zotero not only makes reviewing scholarly literature more manageable in the electronic format, it has become preferable to printing the literature off and spreading it out over my desk. Even though reading on the screen can be limiting, a few tweaks makes the process more productive than the old-fashioned methods I used to use.

Image Credit: http://bit.ly/1i9n6S3

Posted on September 13, 2015 and filed under Writing, General.