Using Zotero as a Reference Manager

In the previous post we saw how reference managers can be used to make us productive in research. We saw how they make our lives easier when it comes to organising sources.

This post continues with discussing one such reference manager, Zotero, as we seek to set it up, add our entries and syncing our sources.

Zotero is a cross-platform application, which means it can run on all the three major platforms, Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. I use it on Linux, where as of the date of writing, it is fully accessible.

Why Zotero?

This may be the question you may have: why should I use Zotero and not any other reference manager?

There is no good reason, other than that it is a matter of preference. Like most applications I often use, I am often guided by an application’s accessibility, affordability and user interface.

Accessible
Zotero is accessible when using ORCA on Linux as most of the controls can be read out. This also means that it is easy to just click on buttons to add new sources or modify them.
Affordable
This feature is important not only for screen-reader users, but for everyone, particularly in developing economies. Zotero is both affordable in that it is free and open source. It comes with 300MB of storage, which you can add by purchasing. This storage is important if you have to store documents and sync them, otherwise if you just want to store your citations you may not need that much space at all.
User interface
Zotero is based on the same code base as Firefox. What it means is that the experience you have when working in Firefox is the same as in Zotero. This means you can
  • Configure your setting in the Preferences panel in the same way you do with Firefox.
  • Add or remove addons as you do with Firefox.1

Getting Started with Zotero

If you want to get started with Zotero, you have to create a free account here. The process is smooth and can take you no more than a few minutes to complete.

Once done, you should get an email to your inbox, which you have to click to verify your account.

After that, you are in business!

Using Zotero

To use any reference manager, you have to access your references all the time. So while working with a web-based interface may be great for syncing, it is not practical at times when you will be offline.

As a result, you have to download the Zotero client here for your operating system.

Using this desktop client, you are able to add new entries, modify and delete old ones.

Since most of our research these days takes place online, you have to install a browser connector, which is just an addon.

Once you do that, when you are at a site such as Google Scholar, you wouldn’t have to worry about manually copying all those citations into your word-processor. Instead, you click on the Zotero Connector and bring up a menu to save the citations.

These will be placed into your desktop manager, which in turn will sync to your online account.

The Zotero desktop client looks like this:

The Zotero Main Window on Linux

And displays the main pane listing the categories of the sources I have such as MY Library, My Publications, Trash and Unfiled Items.

In the “My Library” item, just one level below, I have created five collections of my sources:

  • International Human Rights Law;
  • Theories;
  • Statistics;
  • Climate Change; and
  • Migration and refugee Crisis.

By the way, collection setup is just arbitrary: it just makes your work easier as you organise sources by subject matter2. So I recommend that you consider creating Collections as the first thing when working with Zotero (or any other reference manager.)

Pressing the TAB key while focusing on a collection switches to the right pane where a list of publications for that collection are kept.

You can start adding an entry by clicking NEW on the File menu, and the entry will display appropriate fields.

Some useful Zotero Addons

As stated above, you can also install some addons in Zotero. The type of addons you install are mainly dictated by the type of work you do either in other word-processors or in other reference managers.

Here, I will just recommend two add-ons that I use. These are the Better BibTex and Zutilo.

Better BibTex

If you work with Tex or its derivatives such as LaTeX, you will realise that bibliography management is often done in .bib files. These in turn are processed by either BibTex or Biber.

So to get .bib files that are well-formatted for import into LaTeX documents, you have to use the Better BibTex add-on. You can get it from this page, where you will get a full description of how it works.

Zutilo

This is useful for enhancing accessibility of the Zotero app itself. While Zotero is great, unfortunately it lacks shortcuts for performing such things as adding new items, pasting copying etc.

This is where Zutilo add-on comes in: it helps you create keybindings to most of the commands in Zotero. Thus, the first thing that I did on my Linux box was to bind CTRL-N to creating new items such as book, article or proceeding.

You can browse dozens of commands and choose keybindings you are comfortable with: if such binding has no conflict, it will take effect. Otherwise, you get a warning regarding the conflict with other commands in the program.

Conclusion

In this post, we looked at working with Zotero as a reference manager, and hopefully you will see some gains in how you refer to your sources.

However, you have to take note of the fact that Zotero is just one other reference manager out of many: you should consider trying out other alternatives until you settle on one that you find to your liking.

In the next post, we will talk of how to reference in MS Word: we will seek to understand how to deal with sources in one program when you do not care much about the whole business of syncing sources or exchanging data with other programs. The techniques discussed in that post all have to do with adding sources and citing them in one of the popular word-processing application around.

See you then and thanks for reading this post!


  1. An addon is a hosted program that extends the functionality of the main program. ↩︎

  2. A collection can be understood as a bookshelf, holding a set of references on a given subject. ↩︎

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