"I told you NOT to use proprietary software even if our university pays for it!" I never understood why our university pays for proprietary reference management software. Perhaps some old people in the administration still live in the 90s of the last millennium when EndNote was de-facto the only decent reference management software for WYSYWIG text processors. But those times are long gone. Finally, our university is at least dumping one of its proprietary reference managers:
Free as in beer, or really free?
But our IT (or libraries?) still pedals the commercial EndNote, and two free, but also proprietary solutions: Mendeley and EndNote Online. I have tried them all, and none of them has any significant advantage over Zotero. Endnote has once crashed both my Microsoft Word and EndNote reference file beyond repair in a critical writing phase (resubmission with a deadline). According to EndNote, this should not be possible, but what do they know about Microsoft Word? Admittedly, this is already a few years back, and apparently, crashes have become much less frequent since. Sadly, in the official email announcement, the responsible librarian from our university fails to distinguish between Zotero and Mendeley/EndNote Online. Mendeley and EndNote Online are only free as in free beer. You do not pay for them, but you are not free to distribute or modify them. Mendeley and EndNote Online can disappear overnight if the company that owns them decides to scrap them. Zotero is very different from that: Even if the current developers of Zotero abandon development, it will not disappear since it is owned by nobody and everybody.
Realtime online collaborative editing
Zotero is also free as in beer, but it is free in many more dimensions than Mendeley or EndNote Online. Besides, and perhaps most importantly: In a world of real-time collaborative online editing, Zotero is not only the superior solution over all the other competitors, but it is in fact the ONLY free solution available at the moment. Yes: there are Sciwheel and Paperpile, both of which work with Google Docs. In fact, Paperpile was the first reference manager to work with Google Docs. Sciwheel is only usable in a meaningful way when you subscribe to the Pro version (unless you limit yourself to writing three manuscripts). And Paperpile doesn't even have a free tier and 1 month is NOT enough to evaluate a reference management tool. Unless you have gone through the complete process of writing a paper (which can take anything between a month and 2 years), you just have not encountered all the problems that can pop up during the process. The revision(s) are an entirely thing on its own, since you typically convert the life bibliography into static text before you submit (called "unlinking" in Zotero). For the revision, you need to go back to the "linked" version of the manuscript. I have an opinion about Paperpile, because our lab licensed Paperpile for about 2 years (before Zotero published their Google Docs plugin). Sciwheel or Paperpile charge you a yearly subscription fee, while the EndNote license is a single payment. But given that EndNote is in version 20, you definitely will need to pay for updates/upgrades sooner or later.
What are the downsides of Zotero?
Neat stuff you only can do with Zotero