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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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;
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
then and thanks for reading this post!
An addon is a hosted program that extends the functionality of the main program. ↩︎
A collection can be understood as a bookshelf, holding a set of references on a given subject. ↩︎