Zotero, an essential component of your academic toolbox

Swiss army knife on white background

Each semester our colleague Catherine Brendow gives training sessions on Zotero attended by dozens of students. She has also written a quite comprehensive web guide to help students to use this tool. But what is Zotero and is it worth investing some time to learn how to use it? Catherine explains why it is a great tool for anyone writing essays and theses, meaning – you!

Zotero and its competitors

Zotero is a citation manager, software allowing students and scholars to build their personal database (called a “library”) of bibliographic references and to use them to insert citations in the texts they write. It automates a boring part of the redaction job, which computers are very good at, allowing you to concentrate on research and analysis, the really interesting part of the process.

Zotero is one of the leaders in this market. The Graduate Institute Library has chosen to support it because it is user-friendly, free, open-source, non-profit, privacy-respectful, and just great overall! This tool was developed inside an American university and benefits from the work of many volunteers who form an active community ready to help each other. Some of them have even created plugins that add useful features to Zotero, giving the possibility to customize it according to your needs.

Other major players in the market include Endnote and Mendeley. The former is quite expensive if you do not benefit from an institutional license (and even in this case, what will you do with your precious database when you leave your institution?). Mendeley is free, but not open-source and belongs to a for-profit company Elsevier.

Good records make good citations

It is generally easy to add a reference to a Zotero library, by clicking on an icon in the URL bar, copy-pasting an ISBN or a DOI in the “magic wand” window, or drag-and-dropping a pdf in the Zotero library. Just let Zotero do its magic and retrieve the metadata by itself. The quality of the record can be very good or really poor, depending on the quality of the information available online. This is why it is essential to check the record after having downloaded it because Zotero can not make good citations from bad data.

Sometimes, it is not possible to download the metadata, because they are not available anywhere. It is the case for legal documents such as case-law, treaties and other legal texts, for book chapters, for interviews (since you have created the document and will not find the metadata anywhere), and for many reports that do not appear in any database. In that case, the record has to be created manually. But once it is created, it can be reused as many times as necessary.

Zotero works with Word, LibreOffice and Google Docs. A toolbar allows inserting the citations easily while writing, with a page number if necessary. Thousands of styles are available on the Zotero repository.

It is a desktop application, but users can create an online account if they wish. They can access their library from different computers or work and share references with other persons.

Zotero has become an essential tool for many students, can be used in many ways, like a Swiss army knife for academics. More than just a citation manager, it allows students and scholars to build “a searchable, sortable, annotated, and organized database” of the literature they are using and will use in the coming years as academics or professionals. Yes, it is worth the effort!


Online Zotero Starter sessions are taking place until mid-November, Graduate Institute students can still register. An advanced session will take place during the spring semester, and this blog post gives tips on how to become “a proficient Zoteroist”. Feel free to contact Catherine to ask her your questions.

The University of Geneva has produced an entertaining video to explain the advantages of citation managers. Check it out in French or English.

Also check out Catherine’s Zotero guide for more information: https://libguides.graduateinstitute.ch/zotero

Illustration: Swiss Army Knife, by Petr Kratochvil (CC0 public domain)

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