PhD Workflow: Mobile Reference Management

As of a couple months ago, the Green Cities Lab of UPenn’s Dept of City and Regional Planning, finally has our own dedicated space, fully equipped with our own workstations! This not only means that I now have better access to computing power for running analyses, but I also now have the luxury of leaving my laptop at home and working exclusively on my workstation while I am on campus. (More on how I’ve set up file syncing and data back up systems at a later time) In this post, I’d like to talk about how I am now managing my references between computers using Zotero and FirefoxPortable.

FirefoxPortable boots and runs exclusively from the USB thumb drive, so your Zotero libraries, citations and all associated data (pdfs, notes, etc) are all easily and immediately accessible from any computer you plug your USB into.
FirefoxPortable boots and runs exclusively from the USB thumb drive, so your Zotero libraries, citations and all associated data (pdfs, notes, etc) are all easily and immediately accessible from any computer you plug your USB into.

Zotero is a free reference and citation management program that can either be used as a standalone application on your local computer, or as an add-on to the Mozilla Firefox web browser. The great thing about Zotero is that it also has an automatically synced cloud-based storage system, which comes with 300MB of free storage, and which can be upgraded for a fee. No matter where you are, you can access your library/citation AND their associated pdf files (which, if you have access to academic databases, usually download and automatically associate themselves to your citations in Zotero).

One issue that I had however, was that if I was syncing my Zotero library to multiple computers, Zotero, was pulling all the updated citations and pdfs from my account and saving locally to my computer, which I liked, because navigating pdfs since locally saved files are much more convenient than accessing pdfs through Zotero’s website. However, I began not to like the idea of storage space being used up on my workstation at the lab and on my laptop at home, and thought about hypothetical situations where I might want to work with my references on other computers– a public computer, borrowed computer, etc. In these cases, I would want the convenience of locally stored pdf files linked to my Zotero library, without necessarily having to download my entire library and associated files every time I installed a new Zotero add-on to Firefox or Standalone on a new computer.

My solution to this problem: use the Zotero add-on to FirefoxPortable, booted from a USB 3.0. Using FirefoxPortable booted from the USB key (thumb drive), makes sure that the Zotero add-on and all associated pdfs, notes, etc are saved onto the USB key, not to the local drives of whatever computer I happen to be working on. I dedicate the space on this USB key ONLY to my Zotero library citations and associated files. I download and add all pdfs through the FirefoxPortable browser, so Zotero automatically creates a unique index folder on the USB drive for each attachment.

D:FirefoxPortableDataprofilezoterostorage for example, looks like this:

Indexing folders automatically created by Zotero for each attachment to a citation in your library. When booting FirefoxPortable off of a USB drive, these folders (and your reference pdfs) are all conveniently stored on the USB drive, so you can take them anywhere!
Indexing folders automatically created by Zotero for each attachment to a citation in your library. When booting FirefoxPortable off of a USB drive, these folders (and your reference pdfs) are all conveniently stored on the USB drive, so you can take them anywhere!

The indexing system that Zotero automatically creates is admittedly cryptic (random), but don’t worry, you’ll never actually have to navigate to the pdf you’re looking for through Explorer. Open up the Zotero Add-On in the FirefoxPortable browser, and search for the reference there. Double clicking on the citation will automatically open up the associated pdf for you to view. Like running Zotero as an add-on in normal Firefox, or as Zotero standalone, this library will automatically update and sync, in case you’ve updated your library somewhere else.

Double clicking on the reference you want to see a the original pdf of through FirefoxPortable makes it extremely easy and fast to access your entire library from anywhere.
Double clicking on the reference you want to see a the original pdf of through FirefoxPortable makes it extremely easy and fast to access your entire library from anywhere.

Also, you can save all your preferences for FirefoxPortable and the Zotero add-on on your USB drive, so no matter what computer you run this from, regardless of whether Firefox is installed on it, regardless of whether you have set up any sync to your Zotero library on it, your Zotero library will run exactly the same every time. Which was worked really great for me.

I did originally try running FirefoxPortable and the Zotero add-on from a USB 2.0 drive and did notice that there seemed to be a delay (compared to using Standalone) to open pdfs by double clicking on citations. After upgrading to a USB 3.0 however, I do not notice any slowness or delay. This system works seamlessly for me!

I bought a SanDisk Extreme 32GB flash drive to boot FirefoxPortable from and to store all my references on.
I bought a SanDisk Extreme 32GB flash drive to boot FirefoxPortable from and to store all my references on.

One thought on “PhD Workflow: Mobile Reference Management”

  1. Great suggestion – having all your PDFs with you all the time makes sense, as does being able to manage everything with zotero. Try zotfile as another Firefox extension – it automatically renames your attached PDFs using meaningful fields such as authortitledate or whatever configuration you want. It can be helpful for sharing files and also has a function whereby you can ‘send’ PDFs to a tablet, annotate them and then grab those annotations as a note saved within zotero. Clever stuff and worth a try I’d say!

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