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Advanced tips to get the most out of Zotero

Friday, June 13th, 2014

In a previous post told you more about Zotero, a powerful referencing tool. This time around, we’ll  give you a few advanced tips to get the most out of it.


  1. If you normally browse the internet with a browser other than Firefox (e.g. Google Chrome or Internet Explorer), it works great to use Firefox as a “research-only” browser. Disable all unnecessary add-ons and plugins and add quick links to your favourite research websites in your bookmarks toolbar. That way, when you open Firefox you’ll be able to research efficiently without distractions.


  1. If you’re browsing Google Scholar, JSTOR or something similar and both the address bar icon and the “Export” link are shown for a particular item, rather use the latter. In some cases, Zotero can’t extract the complete metadata for the item when it tries to do so automagically. In these (rare) cases, the metadata provided by the vendor (Google Scholar, JSTOR, etc.) is more accurate and so it makes more sense to use the “Export” link.
  2. Learn how to use ZotFile. This nifty Zotero add-on will allow you to store full-text PDFs of your journal articles on your hard drive. It will also allow you to send these PDFs to your tablet, letting you annotate them using your favourite PDF app. Afterwards, it pulls the annotated PDFs back into your library. This is brilliant for jotting down thoughts while you’re reading an article.


  1. The easiest way to organise your sources is by using collections. However, tags are also very handy for adding ‘statuses’ to your sources. For example, you could decide to add the tag “Started” to all the sources you’ve started reading for a particular project. When you’re finished with a particular source you could add the tag “Finished”. Also, you could indicate the quality of a source by using a tag, for example by adding tags like “Not applicable” and “Awesome”. Check out this article for help on using collections and tags.


  1. You can create your own citation style if, heaven forbid, none of the existing ones fits your needs. Be warned, though, that this requires a bit of technical knowledge.
  2. In Microsoft Word, create keyboard shortcuts for inserting a citation and editing a citation. This will make it even easier to insert citations while you type (literally reducing the time required to insert a citation to a few seconds). For example, you could assign CTRL+ALT+D to inserting a citation and CTRL+ALT+E to editing a citation.

The chances are that, once you start using Zotero, you will find it hard to remember how you did research without it. Apart from the short-term advantages set out above, using Zotero has the long-term advantage of letting you gradually build your own research library, ensuring a level of continuity across your different essays/articles/papers.

In conclusion, and to summarise: Zotero handles the nitty-gritty practicalities of research, letting you concentrate fully on what matters most: interpreting existing knowledge and contributing your own.



Zotero: step by step

Friday, June 6th, 2014

In a previous post we introduced you to Zotero, a powerful referencing tool. This time around, we’ll  show you how it works.


There’s a cool screencast showing all of the below, as well as a great guide.

Zotero’s first ‘killer’ feature is the fact that it makes it much quicker and easier to accurately collect information about your sources. In most cases, you can grab all of the information required for a citation (e.g. title, date, publisher and place, in the case of a book) in a single click, while you are viewing the specific item on your preferred research/library website (e.g. Google Scholar, JSTOR, EBSCOHost). There are four ways to collect sources:

  1. Use the icon in the address bar. On most websites, Zotero will add an icon to the right-hand side of the top address bar. When clicking that icon, Zotero will automagically grab the metadata of the item you’re currently viewing (e.g. a book on Google Books, a journal article on JSTOR, etc.) and create a new item in your library.
  2. Use your research/library website’s “Export” function. Most research websites will have an “Export” link somewhere on the page. Zotero will happily create a new item in your library when you click that link. This is especially handy when you’re viewing search results on a website like Google Scholar, because you’ll be able to add many sources very quickly (i.e. when you’re grouping everything that looks interesting to look at it at a later stage).
  3. Enter a book’s ISBN. If you work with printed books, you’re probably used to flipping to the front matter of the book and trying to decipher the fine print for details such as the publisher, place and year of publication. In this case, Zotero’s magic is particularly spectacular. Simply click the ‘magic wand’ tool in Zotero, enter the book’s ISBN and press ENTER. Nearly instantaneously, Zotero will contact a number of worldwide ISBN services, get the correct metadata for your book and create a new item in your library.
  4. Manually create a new item. In the very rare case that none of the above three methods is available, you can create a new item and enter its details by hand (read: keyboard).


Once you’ve collected all of your sources in your Zotero library, you can start citing them in Microsoft Word (and other word processor) documents. This is Zotero’s second ‘killer’ feature: that it does all of the style formatting dirty work behind the screens. You simply position your cursor where you want to add a citation, go to the “Add-ins” tab in Word and click the “Insert Citation” icon. This will bring up an inviting, red-bordered textbox, in which you can type the title/author of your source(s). Pressing ENTER will add a neat citation in your preferred style. On that note: there are more than 6000 styles available for download from the Zotero website.

Many students will know the sinking feeling of having finished the actual writing of their paper/report/thesis, only to remember that the bibliography is still conspicuously absent. Here, Zotero’s third ‘killer’ feature kicks in: it keeps track of what you’ve cited in your document and generates a complete bibliography, in your selected style, at the click of a button.

Check out this page for a full guide to citing and generating a bibliography with Zotero.

Next time – Advanced tips to get the most out of Zotero.




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