10 advanced ways to become a more proficient Zoteroist

You already know the basics but you want to learn some tricks to use Zotero more efficiently. We hear you. Here are 10 tips that advanced Zotero users should know about.

1. Clean, clean, clean your Zotero data!

When it comes to your Zotero library, we recommend that you systematically check your references after downloading them. Some important data may be missing, and there may even be some mistakes, especially for working papers or blog posts. Being obsessive about cleaning up and doing it regularly will save you the stress of having to do it right before you submit your paper or thesis.

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

2. Install Zutilo to make your workflow smoother

Zutilo is a plugin that adds many useful features and keyboard shortcuts to your Zotero. It will not clutter your Zotero menus with features you will never use, because you can choose which ones you want and which ones you do not. Totally custom. Watch this video for more details.

3. Smart PDF management

  • Drag and drop your PDFs into your Zotero library and let Zotero extract the metadata to create the reference;
  • Attach PDFs to a reference with the paper clip icon and right-click to rename the file according to the metadata;
  • Open the PDF in the built-in PDF viewer, highlight and annotate it, and automatically create a note from your annotations; you can later paste the content directly into a text in Word, LibreOffice or Google Docs. You can highlight using different colours, and view only the sentences highlighted in a particular colour.
  • If you have an iPhone or an iPad: download the Zotero app from the Apple Store, and you can read, annotate and highlight your PDFs on your phone or tablet.
  • If you have an Android tablet, install Zotfile to sync, highlight and annotate your PDFs on your phone or tablet.

4. Use standalone notes!

Zotero can be more than just a database for your bibliographic references. Notes do not necessarily have to be attached to a source, they can be standalone. As Lincoln Mullen says, “Attaching notes to the source forces you to think about the source first and then the idea encapsulated in the note, rather than the other way round”. This makes sense, but since Zotero’s search functions are really powerful, searching both the attached files and the notes themselves, and since you can tag your notes, it should usually not be too difficult to find the note that deals with a very specific concept, even if you do not remember the source it is attached to.

Standalone notes are still very useful for storing your thoughts, the definition of a key concept, or the rules that govern the workflow within a group library. To create one, just click on the “New Note” button (to the left of the paperclip button). You can link it to related sources, using the “Related” tab in the right pane, and you can use the search and tagging features to find your notes more easily.

Zotero provides many tools to help you manage your research notes efficiently. Of course, you may want to use a tool with more advanced features, such as Obsidian. The good news is that there is a Zotero-Obsidian integration and in fact, many people have built their workflows around both tools: you can find inspiration here or here.

5. Create tags and collections related to your workflow

Like “to-read”, “to-assess” or even… “uninteresting”. In the latter case, you should probably add a note explaining why the document is uninteresting, so if you come across the same document 6 or 12 months later, you will not need to read and assess it again.

Tags are best suited for this purpose because they are more flexible: you can simply delete them after reading or assessing the document. You can even have coloured tags (right-click on the tag and select “assign colour”) to make it easier to find the references.

6. Know which collection(s) a reference belongs to

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

7. Find your style

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

You can also install the ZoteroPreview add-on: it adds an additional tab (next to the “Related” tab) with a citation preview using your chosen bibliographic style.

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

8. Know how to reference book chapters

You will not normally find a record for book chapters, so you will need 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” from the drop-down menu for the chapter author, and “editor” for the book editor(s).

There is a lot of common information between the record for a book and the record for a chapter of that book, so why enter it twice? Right-click on the title of the book in the middle pane of your Zotero library, select Create Book Section and create a new record with some fields already filled in. It works both ways: you can right-click on the title of a book section to quickly create the book’s record.

You can link the records for a book and its chapters using the Related tab.

9. Use the Zotero reports to get a global view of one of your collections

Right-click on the collection name, and select Generate Report from Collection. You will see a comprehensive list of your references, including abstracts, tags and notes. This gives you a global view of your collection, allowing you to evaluate and sort the documents it contains.

10. Use the Locate menu to find the documents more easily

The small green arrow to the right of the Quick Search window gives access to the Locate menu. You can search for an article or a book online, using Google Scholar or Crossref, and using the library lookup, you can search directly in Swisscovery, provided you have entered our OpenURL resolver in the Zotero preferences: go to the Advanced tab of the Preferences menu and select Geneva Graduate Institute from the drop-down menu in the custom window.

Want 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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