10 advanced ways you can become a more proficient zoteroist

You already master the basics, but would like to know some tricks to use Zotero in a more efficient way. We hear you. Here are 10 tips from our Zotero specialist, Catherine Brendow.

1. Clean, clean, clean your Zotero data!

When it comes to your Zotero library, I would recommend checking your references systematically after download. Some essential data may be missing, and there may even be some errors, especially for working papers or blog posts. Being obsessed with cleaning and doing it regularly will save you the stress of having to do it right before submitting your paper or thesis.

Are you in a hurry? Create a special tag such as “needs cleaning” to find those references later, but don’t wait too long! Here are some more tips on how to make the cleaning easier.

2. Create an account on the Zotero web site

You probably don’t need it if you’re always working on the same computer by yourself (still, don’t forget to back up your Zotero library anyway), but if you sometimes (or regularly) use another computer, a Zotero online account allows you to access your library from any device with an Internet connection, and to update it from different computers.

It also allows also to create groups and share references with other people. After creating your account, don’t forget to enter your login and password in your sync preferences (menu Edit -> Preferences -> Sync).

3. Know where your Zotero data is stored

To see where your data directory is located, go in the Edit menu, and select Preferences > Advanced > Files and Folders. It is of course highly recommended to back up your Zotero library, even if you sync your collection with the Zotero server.

As the synchronization is automatic, any change will quickly be replicated online – sometimes even too quickly. Zotero recommends backing up all your files (not just your library, but also your essays, thesis, pictures…) using an automated backup utility such as Time Machine on Mac. There are also similar utilities for Windows.

4. Use smart PDF management

  • Drag and drop your PDFs to your Zotero library and let Zotero extract the metadata to create the reference;
  • Attach PDFs to a reference using the paper clip icon and rename the file according to the metadata with a right-click of the mouse;
  • Open the PDF to view it in an external viewer, highlight and annotate it, and save your annotations;
  • Install Zotfile for more options :
    • automatically extract highlighting and annotations from your PDF reader and save the extracted text in a note attached to the reference,
    • sync PDFs with your PDF reader app on your mobile device,
    • and more!

5. Know how to reference book chapters

You generally won’t find a record for books chapters, so you’ll have to create one manually using the “Book section” item type. The editor(s) of the book and the author(s) must be entered in the author field: just select “author” in the drop-down menu for the chapter author, and “editor” for the book editor(s).

Zutilo can help, as this expansion allows you to create the record of the chapter directly from the record of the book, without having to enter the data twice.

6. Find your style

The preview pane allows you to visualize a reference in all the styles available in your Zotero. To find it, select Preferences in the Edit menu, then the Cite tab, and click on Style Preview.

Need more styles? You can find thousands of them in the style repository.

7. Discover how to manage more than one bibliography in a single document

Some thesis writers would like to have a bibliography at the end of each chapter, but if that is your case, you have probably noticed it is not possible using the Word or Libre Office toolbar.  In that case, there are 2 options:

  • Have a separate file for each chapter; this also has the advantage of avoiding your files becoming too large, which has some drawbacks. Zotero may need a few minutes every time you insert a new citation to check if the document has already been cited before.
  • If you wish to keep a single file, create a separate collection for each chapter, then right-click on the collection to create an independent bibliography and paste it at the end of the chapter. That’s a bit risky, because adding a last minute citation in a chapter will mean having to add it to the bibliography, too!

8. Know how to find out which collection(s) a reference belongs to

To highlight the collections a reference belongs to, just select the item and click on the Ctrl key if you have a PC, or the alt key if you have a Mac.

9. Create tags and collections related to your workflow

Such as “to-read”, “to-assess” or even… “uninteresting”. In the latter case, you should probably add a note explaining why the document isn’t interesting, so if you come across the same document 6 or 12 months later, you won’t need to read and assess it again.

Tags are best suited for this purpose, because they are more flexible: you can just delete them after reading or assessing the document. You can even assign colors (right-click on the tag and select “assign color”) to some of these tags, to find the references more easily.

10. Use standalone notes!

Zotero can be more than a database for your bibliographic references. You can use it to keep your ideas or thoughts, using standalone notes.

To create one, just click on the “New Note” button (left of the paper clip button). You can link it with related sources, using the “related” tab in the right pane, and you can use the search and tagging functions to retrieve your notes more easily!


Still wish to learn more? Visit Catherine’s Zotero web guide, or contact her directly!

Cover picture (cropped): 80 lectures, by Denise Chan (CC By-SA 2.0)

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