All Things Apple

Zotero for reference management

The right reference manager will save you time and effort when it comes to building bibliographies. Zotero feels right

Zotero is an open-source reference management tool. I started using it only recently – okay, yesterday – because I was looking for a way to gather together all my references for a book project.

If you don’t have a good system in place, references can quickly turn into a soul-destroying, madness-inducing, time-consuming mess:

  • Memory: Where did you discover that useful nugget of information in the first place? If you don’t gather that data instantly, it’s all too easily forgotten.
  • Styling: Also, sort of, memory related, especially if you work for more than one publisher. Different publishers prefer different formats, or citation styles.

Zotero solves both problems, making it easy to capture and store references in its searchable interface; and, when it comes time to output a bibliography, Zotero will take care of the styling for you. Throw in PDFs, images, videos, audio, web pages and let Zotero do some of the heavy lifting. I say ‘some’, because Zotero doesn’t usually fill in all the blanks. Depending on your needs, you may want to add to or edit references; you can also tag references to enhance search and attach personal notes.

So, how does Zotero work?

Book references

Let’s take an example, capturing the information you need for a book. Click on Zotero’s ‘Add by identifier’ icon and type the ISBN number; within seconds, Zotero creates a new reference item and handily fills in (some of) the blanks, retrieved from the WorldCat database. The other identifiers available in Zotero are the Digital Object Identifier, for primary research, and PubMed IDs, for biomedical literature.

Zotero’s right-hand panel (below), shows the information retrieved from WorldCat for Stephen Hay’s book Responsive Design Workflow. There’s not a great deal, but it’s enough to build a citation and you can fill out other fields manually. All I did was type in the 10-digit ISBN number. Zotero did the rest.

Zotero’s three pane interface – left to right – shows collections, items and item fields


Web pages

Zotero is designed to work with Firefox, but there are also ‘connectors’ – easy to install extensions – for Safari and Chrome.

You can capture a book’s metadata directly from an online catalogue into Zotero. In Safari, I had to export the catalogue data by choosing ‘Cite/Export’ then ‘Export to EndNote/Reference Manager’. Zotero’s standalone app then offers to import the data from the created file. Accept, and it creates a new item.

Zotero can also capture metadata about a web page itself and, in the process, automatically take a snapshot of the web page to store with the item.

Here’s what a web page capture looks like.

Zotero’s web page capture interface

Generating citations from Zotero

Getting information out of Zotero is just as easy as adding it in the first place.

There are plugins for MS Word and LibreOffice/OpenOffice/NeoOffice for the creation of dynamic bibliographies. New citations added in your document are added to the bibliography; changes to a reference in Zotero are also reflected in the document’s bibliography.

But let’s say you’re using a different word processor, such as Scrivener for Mac1 (US, UK) or one of the many Markdown editors I find myself testing from time to time. Citations can be grouped and exported from Zotero as RTF, HTML, or to the clipboard to paste directly into a document. Alternatively, at this point choose to create a bibliography from selected items. To add a single reference from Zotero to a document, simply drag it from the Zotero window to the document window.

Zotero’s ‘create a bibliography’ window also gives you the option to choose a citation style. There are a number of pre-installed citation styles, such as Chicago Manual of Style and Elsevier Harvard; if the style you want is not on the default list, there are hundreds more available in Zotero’s style repository.

Zotero strikes me as a great time-saving tool for capturing and formatting references.

Zotero is free2, and available for Mac, Windows and Linux.

  1. Scrivener is also available for Windows.
  2. UPDATE: Online storage is free up to 300MB; paid plans start at $20 per year ($1.67 per month) for 2GB.

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