Discuss: Zotero and the needs of novice researchers

edited January 6, 2023

(Forked from this post on Zbib feedback)

I’m an academic librarian. I’ve been using Zotero and teaching it to students and faculty for about as long as Zotero has been around. I’ve probably introduced Zotero to hundreds of people, most of whom have been undergraduates. I once printed my own Zotero stickers to hand out at workshops. You might say I’m an insufferable Zotero fanboy.

In spite of my own love for Zotero and in spite of all of the amazing recent updates that have improved my own research workflow immeasurably, I have some serious concerns regarding the long-term viability of Zotero in its current form.

I don’t know if it’s true or not whether younger people generally struggle with legacy tech, but over the past few years, I’ve observed a noticeable decline in students’ basic computer skills as they relate to installing and using Zotero. It seems fewer and fewer students each year have the knowledge and skills necessary to install software or add a browser extension. I’m finding that I have to teach more and more students very basic things: how to right-click, how to locate their downloads folder, how to navigate a program menu, how to launch a program. What I perceive as a decline in basic computer literacy isn’t something Zotero can solve, but I don’t think it’s going away. I worry that as Zotero gets more powerful and more complex, it becomes less accessible to entry-level users.

It’s entirely possible that these concerns are already on the dev team’s radar and that recent work on the web library, PDF reader, and iOS app signal a convergence toward what I’m envisioning, but in any case, here are some things that I think would lower the bar without sacrificing functionality for power users:

  1. Simplifying onboarding.

    I think novice users have come to expect certain kinds of guideposts and onboarding features from other applications. Things like a quick tour on first launch, tooltips for core functions, etc. This could be really robust, but it doesn’t have to be. For example, Zotero could install with a few sample sources of different types in the default library, as well as a standalone note that includes some tasks for manipulating that sample source metadata.

  2. Reducing dependence on citation literacy.

    I’ve found that novice users get really hung up on much of the Zotero UI, but the metadata editor seems to be particularly challenging. I think this is because entry-level researchers have a less nuanced understanding of metadata. Things like modifying contributor names (FirstName LastName vs. LastName, FirstName vs. Corporate Author), adding new contributors of different types, and toggling title case are simply things they don’t consider because they may not even know that they’re needed, and the interface doesn’t make it very clear that they’re even options. Compared to the metadata editor from the free MyBib web app (Screenshot), Zotero’s editor doesn’t offer much guidance.

  3. Embracing more fully the web app model.

    Right now I think installing the software itself presents the biggest barrier for novice users. From their perspective, there are (maybe dozens of?) perfectly sufficient web-based tools that require no downloads or even accounts. Zbib is one of these, but it’s not well known. The Zotero web library experience is actually pretty impressive (honestly I think we could conceivably get away with not requiring users to download the software at this point) but I think it ultimately suffers because it’s trying to replicate the desktop software experience. It would benefit from a more app-like experience: clearer (labeled?) buttons, input interfaces that appear in modals, containerized sections of the app accessed through a menu rather forcing everything to display at once. Very much like what’s going on in the Zbib metadata editor (Screenshot), but more consistently across the web library. Maybe the desktop app remains as-is for power users, but I understand that re-creates the parallel development problem that was such a challenge during the early days of Zotero Standalone.

  4. Easier sharing features.

    Zotero Groups are great, but they aren’t exactly easy. Web-based bib generators often have a feature to share view-only or invite-to-collaborate links. Obviously both are possible with Zotero Groups, but the process is pretty tedious (leave the app, log in at the website, create a group, go to group settings, etc.). For students who need to collaborate with an instructor or classmates, there are plenty of options that present less friction.

Zotero is a robust and extremely powerful tool that for most undergrads is almost certainly overkill. I can understand one’s impulse to dismiss most of my concerns, given that novice researchers can be directed to any of the numerous free web-based citation management tools that already exist. But I support Zotero specifically because it’s a powerful, open-source tool that is actively backed by a robust community. Zotero protects users’ privacy and it doesn’t serve the interests of commercial publishers or fuel the cheating-industrial complex. Novice researchers deserve as much, don’t they? I don’t think there’s a single web-based tool out there that ticks all of those boxes. Personally I’d love to see Zotero do to EasyBib what it did to EndNote all those years ago.

Would love to hear others’ thoughts.

(PS: Can we please get Markdown support in the forum composer? Haha)

  • While the Zotero UI can & will be improved in the future, I think 1-3 have real trade-offs and I think Zotero is right to focus (though not limit) its design on researchers who do serious research -- i.e. roughly starting with undergrads writing honors thesis, but mostly graduate students upwards. A click-heavy and unnecessary onboarding, a more guided (but therefore more click intensive) web app experience, and assuming people don't understand how citations work will make the user experience less attractive for those researchers.

    You don't really say why you don't think Zbib is an option for those users. That's specifically why Zotero created it.

    I think 4) is in a separate category and not at all limited to novice users -- obviously many researchers are used to sharing features like Google Drive or Dropbox and Paperpile -- while still much smaller, in many ways the only serious competitor to Zotero in that market when it comes to quality, UX, and user enthusiasm -- does offer that. (And Zbib's sharing features are arguable closer to this model already)
  • Thanks for replying.
    You don't really say why you don't think Zbib is an option for [novice] users. That's specifically why Zotero created it.
    Yes, you're right. Zbib does tick most of my boxes, but it lacks the robustness of the full app: source sensing, online account features, attachments, collections, word processor integration, etc. These are not features exclusively useful to advanced researchers. Novice users generally find the word processor integration the most impressive feature. Everybody likes to save time. I'm not suggesting an EasyBib clone that does what EasyBib does, but for free, and without harvesting user data. I'm suggesting that Zotero can beat EasyBib et al. on features if the tool is developed with the least-skilled, least-knowledgable users in mind: that's just Universal Design.
    A click-heavy and unnecessary onboarding [...]
    I, too, am annoyed by first-launch tours and click-throughs, but I'm a skilled tech user that prefers to learn by discovery. But I wager that's not most people. I've had some extremely motivated faculty come to me nearly defeated after they've tried (and failed) to bootstrap Zotero on their own. A one-time, dismissible onboarding experience would be a boon to these folks, while not asking much more than a "skip tour" click from advanced users. I'm not up on the UX research on those experiences, though, so I might be completely wrong about (all of) this. I'm just going on what I see from the many, many users I interact with regularly who won't ever find their way to the forums.
    a more guided (but therefore more click intensive) web app experience, and assuming people don't understand how citations work will make the user experience less attractive for [advanced] researchers.
    Maybe? I think there's probably a happy medium w/r/t a web app experience, and honestly, the desktop app is pretty click-intensive itself if you ignore keyboard shortcuts. (Thinking specifically of all of the essential functions hidden behind context menus.) I can see lots of options, none of which have to be carved in stone. More real estate for metadata entry via some kind of modal would be great, but it doesn't have to be the default. Panels could be more easily toggled on and off, e.g., rather than dragging their columns borders to hide them. Lots of possibilities, none of which necessarily have to coddle novices at the expense of advanced users. And again, assuming more limited citation literacy is just Universal Design.

    FWIW: A few years ago I experienced a similar shift from a more expert-oriented desktop app to a novice-friendly web app in YNAB, the budgeting software I've used for more than a decade. I was adamant that they'd pry the desktop software from my cold, dead hands, but when I was forced to transition, I realized how nice it was that they could roll out big updates and make UI tweaks without me needing to update my own copy of the software. The tool has steadily improved and its userbase has exploded.
  • Saying this as a Zotero user for 15 years... Computer (and citation) illiteracy among *graduate* students (and probably undergrads) and researchers is a real issue, and anything that can improve the user interface and onboarding would really help who try to spread its use among our own research groups.

    And I bet the advanced user would easily figure out how to turn off any annoying interface features that get in their way but help the novice.

    On (4), the example of Paperpile is informative. Despite having an unlimited storage account, I do not use Zotero Groups, because I can't get others to figure it out (and Zotero Groups have some important technical limitations for me, such as no sharing or updating between libraries). But starting to use Paperpile collaboratively, when I had to do it for one collaboration, was refreshingly easy. I have no suggestions or advice to give, and immensely appreciate the developers' work, but I just wanted to reiterate that there are real issues here that @denlinkd brought up.
  • edited January 7, 2023
    I've given large group lecture-demonstrations of Zotero to undergraduate criminal justice and nursing students. The things that give them the most trouble (as said above by the OP) involve installing Zotero on Mac or Windows, getting Zotero to work with Word or Libreoffice, and finding the browser icon. The last couple of classes I received comments about how this is so much more complicated than installing a phone app. We gave up on the idea of demonstrating the power of Zotero's (not so very) advanced features and now demonstrate quickly how to capture items from databases and publishers' websites and how quickly one can insert citations into a document and -poof- make a bibliography. Then we spend time hands-on with each student installing the software, demonstrating the browser icon, and getting Zotero to work with a word processor. This has been a problem for 5 or more years.

    I've had similar experiences recently with teaching masters and doctoral graduate students about Zotero. I'm astounded at the number of college graduates who are not at ease with installing Zotero and other software. I think that it has to do with impatience. The people who have problems are confused about many of the Zotero basic functions. While after hands-on demonstrations they understand the new notes and PDF annotation features; Groups and RSS (things I love about Zotero) bring them anger and frustration. The people I work with are young sub-specialty physicians and electrical and civil engineers. Clearly people with more brain-power and extraordinary structural visualization skills "should" be able to quickly "get it" but they can't. Editing downloaded records sometimes frustrates me (as I've said in posts about the Zotero UI and my mouse pointer) but the physicians and engineers become surprisingly angry and declare that editing is impossible. They say that they will assign bibliographic tasks to someone else. When I've pointed out that if they themselves have trouble can they demonstrate to a clerk or graduate student how to do what must be done. In most cases they redouble their efforts. Later, when I encounter these folks they thank me for drilling in them the necessary skills.

    Others, seem to never get it. [When I click on the Zotero connector icon in my browser and there is a few-seconds delay from the downloading box appearance to the record appearing in my chosen collection, I begin to wonder if the publisher website is having problems.] Several of my trainees have responded to a delay by repeatedly clicking the browser icon click-click-click-click-click (and more). Others feel a need to reload the browser page and when that doesn't immediately help they typically curse at the Zotero program. Would multiple progress bars help?

    To summarize-- some people who need Zotero the most, have real problems with the concepts of a database and with understanding how to do the clicking needed to use even Zotero's most basic functions.

    I'm old and grew up using printed indexes, 3X5 cards, and typed manuscripts. I find myself frustrated when so many really smart people don't seem willing to learn how to use this amazing tool. The learning curve for me wasn't steep but there are many for whom it is an extraordinary effort.
  • edited January 7, 2023
    Not that I'm discounting these problems, but my 14yo picked up how to use Zotero in about 15-30 minutes for a highschool essay. And she's firmly from the app generation. Hardly ever turns on her PC. I'm with you on the delay between clicking the icon and the item appearing in Zotero though.

    It really isn't that hard, and the major problem I encounter with students is that they fundamentally don't care about or even see the point of citation in the first place, and so don't see the point of using a ref manager. "What my text says is correct, yeah?" is what I often get when I ask them for sources, or when they have a "source" that traces to nothing.
  • edited January 7, 2023
    To clarify my complaints in my post above: Certainly not every student but about 1/4 to 1/3 of them were greatly frustrated by the basics of learning to use the software.

    These people use MS Word as an electronic typewriter and overuse the return key. They don't backup their progressive versions of their work. They can be very articulate with expressing worthy thoughts while at the same time almost incompetent at using their computer.
  • edited January 7, 2023
    Concerning students who don't understand the value of citing sources: I point out that the process of citing the sources behind statements is at the core of academic writing. It demonstrates that the student has been exposed to the body of relevant knowledge of what has come before. Without citations you are no different from an opinionated buffoon ranting on the internet. There is a difference between academic thinking and expression from that of creative expression of opinion.
  • Before this becomes too much of a discussion of values and moral judgment, the purpose of citation, etc., I want to bring things back to my main idea. As @DWL-SDCA puts it:
    To summarize-- some people who need Zotero the most, have real problems with the concepts of a database and with understanding how to do the clicking needed to use even Zotero's most basic functions.
    Whether or not new users understand the value or purpose of citation and whether or not they have the patience to learn new tools is immaterial. My point is that the tool can (should?) be designed to accommodate those who have the most basic understanding of citation and the least patience or skill with installing and learning new tools.

    Zotero is especially good at clarifying the concept of source referencing. Once users see the relationship between metadata, reference, and bibliography, it's easier for them to understand how citation actually works. It's a helluva lift to get to that understanding with Zotero, though, especially compared to tools that may make this connection at the expense of student privacy. So I reject the idea that this should be a tool exclusively for serious scholarship. It is a tool for serious scholarship, but it's also an extremely useful tool for learning scholarship.

    With text generating AI like ChatGPT, we're entering an era where the cost to produce bullshit is rapidly approaching zero. It will become increasingly important for those who wish to be seen as trustworthy and reliable to cite sources as easily and accurately as possible. I believe Zotero can be that for everyone, if it wants to be.

    I'm not entirely familiar with the governance structure of Zotero/Digital Scholar, but if there's some kind of advisory board or discussion group that would be a more suitable forum for this discussion, I would love to know about it.
  • CDS has a board, but my understanding is that it's very high-level. Discussion happens here, decisions are made within the dev team.
  • Thanks for the feedback, @denlinkd.

    Some comments:

    1) Some of this is just a question of available development time. The list of things we want to improve in Zotero is endless. Should there be a better first-run experience? Sure (though I wouldn't do all of the things suggested here). But we have to balance that with all the other things people using Zotero every day want us to add. That said, I do think it's easy to overlook things like onboarding that don't get as much ongoing visibility from developers or regulars in the forums, and that's one of the things our new outreach coordinator will be focusing on.

    2) I think it's probably a mistake to extrapolate too much from the computer literacy and interest level of undergraduates doing one-off assignments to "the long-term viability of Zotero in its current form". The Zotero project is healthier than it's ever been, with more people using the software — and developing on it — than ever before. I don't think there's a lot of evidence to suggest there's going to be some transformational shift in people's ability to use advanced tools when they actually need to.

    3) At the same time, I'd strongly push back on the idea that there's any reason to worry that "as Zotero gets more powerful and more complex, it becomes less accessible to entry-level users". Anyone who's followed Zotero development closely over the years knows that we're incredibly careful to avoid introducing complexity — I suspect to the significant annoyance of many advanced users who just want us to add features more quickly. A huge amount of what we do is in the direction of making things easier, quicker, and more self-explanatory. Zotero 6 added a massive amount of new functionality, I think mostly without impacting entry-level usability at all (and hopefully the opposite in some major ways).

    4) You've identified some of the challenges of teaching a powerful tool like Zotero to undergrads, but I think a lot of that just points to the fundamental tension in trying to create a tool for everyone. And I think that shows in some of your feedback — you seem to simultaneously be suggesting that one problem with Zotero is that it requires installing software while also saying that the problem with ZoteroBib is that it doesn't have browser integration or word processor integration, both of which require some level of software installation.

    As adamsmith says, we created ZoteroBib specifically with the users you describe in mind (largely because we found the existing options so offensive). It obviously doesn't get a ton of development, but to the extent that we can justify spending time on it (which, honestly, is a bit limited), I think that's the most natural and realistic place to try to better cater to undergraduates. Because fundamentally these are different tools for people with different needs: ZoteroBib is a bibliography generator, and Zotero is an advanced tool for managing your research. Most undergraduates want the former, and I think privileging that sort of usage in Zotero would risk seriously compromising its appeal and usability to the much broader population that uses it, many of whom don't even care about citations at all.

    So we're happy to talk more about ways that ZoteroBib could become more useful. The most obvious thing there, and something we've generally planned to do eventually, is optional account functionality, including the ability to more easily create and save multiple bibliographies. That could also ease a transition into Zotero proper for the likely tiny minority who want that.

    5) Re: the web library, creating a (much more powerful) web library that largely mirrored the desktop app vastly reduced confusion among users looking for Zotero functionality online. I don't see us going back.

    6) Sharing, as adamsmith says, is a separate issue. That's an area that we've long wanted to improve, and we're hoping to be able to dedicate time to that this year.

    7) Finally, as you know, our new outreach coordinator was previously an academic librarian, and one of his main goals is to provide more resources both to help people learn Zotero and to teach it to others, very much including undergrads.
  • Thanks, @dstillman. I appreciate your time. I think you're missing some of my point, though, because I've framed it poorly (yeah, "long-term viability" is probably a bit hyperbolic).

    Rather than focusing on the skills and knowledge deficits of novice users, as I've done above, it might be more useful to frame my thoughts this way:

    What would it look like if ZoteroBib was more than just an inoffensive version of EasyBib? What if it was as fully-featured as Zotero 6, but as easy to learn and as easy to use as the most popular online bibliography generators?

    If the cost of entry for new users is effectively the same for both products, why wouldn't novice users choose the one that offers the more useful features? The one that will grow with them as their needs grow? The one that protects their privacy from the jump? The one that almost certainly has locally-available support through their campus library?

    These obviously aren't straightforward development questions. Answering them would require a thorough understanding of both active power users and non-users alike. It's not enough to assume that undergrads just don't care about citation or just want a bibliography generator. Maybe that's true, but maybe they just don't know enough about the process to care. The utility of a full reference manager can reveal itself over time for these folks. But what of other non-users? @enozkan points out (and I concur) that many graduate students and faculty know they *should* use a reference manager, but they're intimidated by Zotero. How would their scholarship be improved if they had become familiar with Zotero as undergrads?

    I am definitely not suggesting that anyone privilege inexperienced users *at the expense of* the broader population of users. I'm suggesting that maybe it's not a zero-sum game. If we make it more accessible to new users, might we also make it easier for everyone else to use? If Zotero were a native web app, and not tens of thousands of copies of a program being run on tens of thousands of machines with different software and hardware configurations, how might teaching and user support be improved?

    I can't begin to imagine the scope and complexity of embarking on such a project, and I know available dev time doesn't permit it, but I think it's worth spending time with these questions.

    Most of this is me just thinking out loud because I care about Zotero a lot. I'm just finding it more and more difficult to justify teaching it to newcomers, and that makes me sad.
  • But if you're saying Zotero should become a native web app, you are saying that you want to prioritize novice users over expert users. For example, scriptability on web apps is much more limited -- something like BetterBibTeX, for example, would be impossible without the ability to hook into local code, something like RStudio's smooth Zotero integration would be massively less performant if it had to work through a web API instead of hooking into a local database.
    And you'd still have to install add-ons for Word/LibreOffice, which tend to be the most troublesome install processes by far (we obviously don't get all errors here on the forums but we actually get virtually no questions about Zotero software installs on Windows and virtually none on Mac).
    And taking about privacy: a web app requires an account and data storage in the cloud. Zotero can -- explicitly and purposefully -- be used entirely without creating an account and people with strong privacy or legal concerns very much do that.

    And FWIW, Mendeley just went the native web app route and it led to a massive influx of users to... Zotero.
  • Perhaps I shouldn't have made explicit suggestions for future updates. Those appear to be distracting.

    I don't want to assume that it should become a native web app. I understand the loss of functionality such a move would bring. Clearly, using a local database has plenty of benefits.

    I'm suggesting that we should imagine a future for Zotero in which it is far more accessible to newcomers but no less powerful and extensible and private as it is now. What would that future version of Zotero look like?
  • edited January 10, 2023
    I think there is definitely some agreement here -- clearly there are Zotero UX and UI elements that can (and in some cases urgently should be) improved. Sharing resources is an obvious example you raised. There are UI elements, starting with the Info pane, that would benefit in usability from a facelift. There's some functionality (such as where you set a citation style for a Word document or how to find which item a collection is in) that are so frequently misunderstood or not found that they'd benefit from some UX/UI interventions. So it's not that anyone is saying Zotero is as easy to use as it could possibly be or has all desirable functionality to make it as easy to use as possible for an inexperienced user.

    But I think it's important to be honest about the fact that there's also some actual disagreement here, and that's where specific proposals come in (and why I latched on web apps as one very specific thing you mentioned). I think there are real UI/UX trade-offs in tools. There's a reason advanced tools like R and python don't look like Excel, and more powerful GUI tools like Excel don't look as simple as Google Sheets.

    So to move this forward, I don't necessarily expect or even think it'd be most helpful for you and similarly minded people who support a lot of beginners to propose solutions, but I think very specific issues (as you brought up for zbib) are going to be more helpful than broad categories. And I think in some cases, these will fall in the first category (I'm sure, e.g., that creator entry in Zotero could be clarified/improved without any loss) and in some cases ('people struggle with installing software') they will fall in the second.

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