University helpdesk recommends Zotero, but does not provide meaningful support


With the end of last year (31.12.2021), the University of Helsinki discontinued licensing its default bibliographic software tool RefWorks. Strangely, you cannot license RefWorks as an individual. That means when your academic affiliation ends, there is no way for you to continue using the software. Perhaps, the current owner of RefWorks (Clarivate) will kill it completely because RefWorks is a direct competitor of Endnote, which is the reference management solution that Clarivate is focussing on, given Endnote's integration with Publons and the Web of Science (WoS), which is best known for its Impact Factor. Not coincidentally, Clavivate is owned by Thomson Reuters, which is the company that litigated against Zotero for offering its users the possibility to convert proprietary EndNote citation style sheets into the interoperable and standard CSL format.

The recommended replacement for RefWorks is Zotero. I have no problem with this since I like Zotero and have been using it as my default bibliography management tool for now more than 10 years. On top of the fact that it is free, it combines two important features, which make it unique and superior to commercial solutions:

  1. It is truly cross-platform with standalone native applications for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
  2. It has a plugin for Google Docs, Microsoft Office and LibreOffice. This enables real-time online collaborative editing as well as offline use.

While Endnote is a very nice commercial tool for the same purpose, there is neither an Endnote plugin for Google Docs nor for the online version of Microsoft Office. I presume that's why many researchers are still stuck with sending Word files of manuscripts forth and back as email attachments. Of course, you can use the RTF-formating route (as described e.g. here, but this feels like going back in time at least two decades (this is how I formatted my Ph.D. thesis in 2002).

Having said so many good things about Zotero, why is there a problem with the University of Helsinki switching from RefWorks to Zotero? Because virtually everybody using Zotero on University-managed Windows computers will sooner or later run into a problem, that IT seems to be unwilling (or unable) to solve. If you don't run into this problem, you have likely one or both of the two following other problems:

  1. You do not use a digital bibliography management tool. Enough said.
  2. Your library contains a way to few items. This likely means that you are not keeping up with the developments in your research field.

Zotero uses a local database to store all your bibliographic information. By default, this database is created in a directory that is synchronized between different computers if you happen to use more than one UH-managed computer. And the Zotero database will be large, especially if you use it to store the full-text versions of the individual items. The default free tier (which is used by the UH-managed default installation) allows you to store 300 MB of data. Therefore, Zotero alone can fill up 100% of the maximally allowed space usage of the roaming profile. If you happen to write many manuscripts, do lots of literature research, and have many full-text PDFs of publications, you need either to buy more storage space from Zotero or you need to point your Zotero to some other online storage service. Zotero uses the WebDAV protocol to store data in the cloud, and there are free WebDAV services out there that are specifically geared towards Zotero data syncing:

My own Zotero library contains at the moment about 3500 items and needs almost 18 GB of disk space. Hence, I have to sync them via a WebDAV service, which I pay for myself. I self-host at tiny (5€/month) WebDAV server on Digital Ocean, which gives me 25 GB disk space. The service has been working perfectly for close to ten years now. It is a bit cheaper than the actual Zotero solution (which would be 10€/month for my 18 GB; with 5€/month you get 6 GB). Actually, now that I am thinking of it, my university should pay for this service, since I exclusively use the WebDAV server for work purposes. Alternatively, UH should offer a WebDAV service for its researchers...

By default, the Zotero data directory is created in the C:\Users\username directory. I do not understand this decision. Why is the default path not the home folder (i.e. Z:)? At least the home folder has more than 300 MB of storage space. I guess the reason is that this would require the VPN connection to be established before starting Zotero, which IT perhaps believes is too much to ask for from highly educated university employees. Why not use then OneDrive? UH pays already Microsoft for 1 TB disk space for every employee, but I bet that the majority of that space is never used by most employees. I just checked my quota, and it appears that I am using about 20 of the 1024 GB. However, OneDrive disk space is not high-quality disk space. If you are moving your Zotero data directory to OneDrive, Zotero warns you that this will almost certainly result in data corruption:

No wonder the Microsoft OneDrive offered by the University to its employees is not used efficiently. But if storage space is available on your home folder Z:, why not just reallocate some storage space from Z: to the disks where the roaming profile is located? I guess this might have something to do with the unfavorable licensing and inflexible online space that UH is renting from Microsoft.

In 2016, IT did realize that they have a problem and they moved the settings folders of several programs away from the roaming profile because the settings folders started to inflate in size. However, it seems that for the last 6 years, IT has not been keeping up with the increasing storage demands of a few other programs. Zotero is a typical example of failed IT migration. It was known more than a year in advance that the RefWorks license would expire, but IT did not do anything to prepare the IT infrastructure for this change. They did offer some user education, which is perhaps the least needed support since there are many online tutorials and videos that show how to install, migrate to, and use Zotero ( What UH IT support should have done is to figure out how to transparently use the available storage space that UH has (OneDrive, NAS, whatever works) for storing the Zotero databases of its users and then tweak the installation to use that space by default. Sadly, even after multiple helpdesk requests, IT does apparently not feel that they need to do anything concerning the issue. On every new computer, on which I run Zotero, I run out of roaming profile space within a few minutes. And when I log out, I actually do never log out because the logout gets stuck with an error message. That is a severe security issue in itself. Alternatively, I have to stick around after issuing the logout command for 5 minutes to wait for the error message to appear:
You have exceeded your profile storage space. Before you can log off, you need to move some items from C:\users\USERNAME -folder's subfolders to network or local storage.
This message is factually wrong. The Zotero folder is not a subfolder of C:\users\USERNAME, but it is nevertheless synced upon logout. I have multiple times sent helpdesk requests because of this error message, but instead of fixing the problem, I get increasingly lengthy apology and explaination emails why IT cannot fix the problem.