Dropbox and Zotero

All the previous posts have been discussions of the challenges and benefits of Web 2.0 tools in e-learning. In this one, I’m simply going to introduce a couple of useful tools (well, I’ve found them useful personally) with which fellow academics and students may not be familiar.


Dropbox is simply online storage for your files. You get 2GB (up to 3GB) of free storage space, which can be accessed from any computer. Its great strengths are;

  • Platform-neutral (OSX, Windows, mobiles)
  • Free
  • Background sync to Mac or PC
  • Usability (no login process – just invisible sync)
  • Mobile support (e.g. iPhone app)
  • Files or folders can be shared online

Dropbox duplicates some of the online storage functionality of Apple’s mobileme services (which is currently costing me $60 per year). I’m thinking seriously about letting my Apple subscription lapse next year – Dropbox is covering all my needs for the moment (and given the nice warm feeling generated by free services I won’t begrudge them the fee if/when I *do* need more storage). I’m two weeks in to using Dropbox – for me, it’s so far proved useful for;

  • Papers for academic meetings
  • Storing e-books for research
  • Sharing files with people without messing about with difficult login/authentication processes
  • An alternative to YouSendIt for sending large files

If you want to give it a try, simply go to dropbox.com and sign up for a free account.


I’m currently working toward my PhD (in collaborative songwriting – I’m working on this part time as a distance learning student at Surrey) and needed a way to achieve the following study goals;

  • ISBN/ISSN/DOI search for books and academic journals
  • Ability to bookmark and archive web pages with correct citation
  • Citation in MS Word
  • Cloud-based storage of pdfs (my life is spread over several Macs)
  • Full-text search of pdfs
  • Instant local access to files
  • No login/authentication to slow down the study process
  • Ability to read BibTEX/RefWorks/Endnote citation files
  • Support for all citation/bibliographical formats
  • Drag-and-drop compatibility with Google docs
  • Automatic creation of an online bibliography (to ease networking/discussion with other academics)

I was aware of two of the market leaders in reference management software – EndNote (which I bought in 2006) and RefWorks (as used by the University) but they didn’t provide the full text search or cloud-based storage I needed. And it struck me that other academics must have had this problem in the past – and I speculated that someone in the worldwide academic community would have found a solution.

So I simply Googled “free citation software” and one of the first results was Zotero. It’s a Firefox plugin that provides everything in my wish-list, including (on a free account) 100MB of pdf storage. So I’ve abandoned both of the other solutions and gone to a free Web 2.0 tool that actually provides *more* functionality than its pay-for equivalent. I’ve already found one academic colleague working in a related area at another University who wants to share bibliographies – imagine what this would do for global knowledge exchange if every researcher had an account…

Zotero links

And before you ask, yes I *have* thought about what happens to my studies if the Zotero site goes down. It’s not a problem, because there will still be a local copy of all the study materials on every computer I use, giving me time to find another solution, or import the bibliography and attachments into another citation manager.

Dropbox and Zotero are both examples of a ‘Freemium business model‘ – the basic service is free in both cases; you only pay if you want more storage than the minimum (3GB and 100MB respectively). It’s conceptually related to the Long Tail principle – which is that a large number of micro-sales add up to a large amount of income. I really hope both companies thrive – it’s great to see free products that combine outstanding usability and lots of useful features. And they’ve improved my productivity (now all I’ve got to do is that actual work!).

3 thoughts on “Dropbox and Zotero

  1. I’ve been in your e-learning session this am at BSU. I think there is a significant challenger to Zotero – Mendeley. Like you I’m spread across various platforms (UNIX, PC and Mac) but prefer chrome/safari rather than firefox. Mendeley (http://www.mendeley.com/) offers cross platform hosting. I also like the way it will organize the PDFs on the host drive. However, the killer function for me is that it creates automated bibtex files broken down into sub-files depending on how you organize your shared collections. It is also incredibly easy to post shared bibliographies etc. I write in LaTeX (eclipse, texlipse, subversin) even though I’m writing a philosophy of education Thesis and the bibtex function is invaluable. Subversion is vital as you can get full version control on all drafts (I’m two years in to my p/t PhD and on version 337 to date).

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