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Take The Stress Out Of Referencing With Zotero

Matthew Hughes 27-01-2014

It’s that time of the year. January. The most dreaded month for any university student.


It’s the time of the year when sales of Red Bull skyrocket and essay deadlines loom on the horizon. It’s the time of the year when undergraduates try to shake off their throbbing new-year hangovers and finish the work they’ve been procrastinating on for the past few months.

As a university student myself, I totally sympathize with you lot. I get it; I really do. Essays are dry. They’re time consuming. They’re dull. And the worst part of it? Referencing. Sure, it shows that you’ve actually read around the subject 5 Ways to Get Your Hands on Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (or Money) For a lot of people academic journals are hard to get hold of. They are also expensive. But with the right tools, you can get your hands on any academic journals you want. Read More and reinforces the points you’ve made in a caffeine-fuelled haze at 4 AM. But this doesn’t make them any less tedious.

Thankfully, there’s an app out there making referencing less frustrating. It’s called Zotero, and it’ll make your life so much easier.

Introducing Zotero

My colleague Yaara Lancet first looked Organize Your Research With The New Standalone Zotero One of Zotero’s biggest cons is that it works only within Firefox. This means you have to be running Firefox and use it to save the articles you find. As long as I was using... Read More at the standalone version of this open-source What Is Open Source Software? [MakeUseOf Explains] "Open source" is a term that’s thrown around a lot these days. You may know that certain things are open source, like Linux and Android, but do you know what it entails? What is open... Read More application in 2011, back when it was still in alpha. Things have moved on since then. Three years have passed, and from a simple Firefox add-on, Zotero has now become a fully-fledged app with a whole host of new features.

Zotero is a tool of two parts. The first is a standalone application which runs on the ever-familiar trifecta of OS X, Windows and Linux. This handles the actual management of references, including creating and exporting bibliographies.



There’s also a plugin for most popular web browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, IE and Safari. This makes it easy to create references from websites you visit.

Managing References

You can also create and manage references from non-web sources. This is as simple as selecting the type of document or content that you’re referencing and inputting the pertinent information about the source. I found there is a reasonable range of categories to choose from. However, when compared with referencing-bible Cite It Right, these were a bit limited.

In case you’ve never heard of it, Cite It Right is a detailed tome which lists the kinds of references one can make with the Harvard referencing style, and gives examples of them. It’s a large book and contains hundreds of examples of references. Zotero isn’t quite as comprehensive.
Speaking of which, let’s talk a bit more about the different kinds of referencing you can do with Zotero. Most universities in the UK use Harvard referencing, of which there are far too many variants to mention. If you prefer a different methodology, you’ll be pleased to know that Zotero probably will cater to you.



The Zotero Style Repository contains a whole bunch of reference styles. These are searchable, and odds are quite good that they’ll have one that works for you. Simply download the reference and double click it, and Zotero will automatically install it for you.

I was really pleased with the range of reference styles on offer. Most of these are user-generated, and some have been adapted to the vagaries of each individual university in the UK.

Referencing From The Web

Zotero has always allowed you to reference content directly from the Internet, but this has been refined and expanded upon in later versions of the product.


In one of my previous articles 5 Ways to Get Your Hands on Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (or Money) For a lot of people academic journals are hard to get hold of. They are also expensive. But with the right tools, you can get your hands on any academic journals you want. Read More , I discussed how academic papers are being distributed through online channels, including Google Scholar. The makers of Zotero have realized this, and whenever you search using Google Scholar you are presented with the option of generating a reference for each result.


The same is also true of Amazon. Search for a book and then click the little icon in the address bar. Zotero will allow you to choose what results you want to generate references for.



Referencing web pages is easy too. Just click anywhere in the web-page and click “generate snapshot from current page” right next to the Zotero icon. The program will do the rest of the hard work.

Exporting References

Exporting references is super easy too. Simply click each result you wish to reference and then click “Create Bilbiography from Items”. In two clicks, this generates a bibliography with the format you specify and then copies that to the clipboard. You can then paste that into your word-processor of choice.


I found that the bibliography that was produced by Zotero was formatted perfectly. This is easily more reliable than creating it by hand. Less tedious, too.

Other Features

Zotero isn’t just for generating references. It’s so much more, and contains a huge amount of features which for the sake of brevity aren’t mentioned in depth here. One such feature allows you to organize your actual PDF library with Zotero, if you have one. There’s also a way to attach a file to a reference in Zotero, so you can easily find things even in a huge library.


You can also synchronize your references to an external server. This means that should your computer ever go on the fritz, or if you work from multiple computers, you will still have access to your library of references.


Zotero is an awesome tool, and I’ve got no reservations recommending it to any college student out there. Have you tried it? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Photo Credit: BrewBooks

Related topics: Organization Software, Study Tips.

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  1. BNG
    March 22, 2014 at 3:16 am

    Zotero is somewhat limited. I want to view my files by custom tags but it won't display tags in the center frame. It would be great if I could create "relationships" between documents but that's not possible either. Also little things irk me: you can't delete a parent node without deleting the underlying child items; you can't click on a raw PDF file and ask it to fetch for metadata if the PDF file is associated with a parent node.

  2. Xoandre
    January 28, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    Can Zotero be used to create keywords or tags and to organize inter-connected documents online?

    More specifically, I have 300+ poems that I wish to cross-link and create a reference list at the bottom which will connect each written piece with those that are similar or have similar emotional content. I know the blog services do this automatically, but it seems like quite a challenge for me to go through all 300+ files word for word and emotional subtext for emotional digression in order to create a massive selection of tags and keywords.

    If Zotero could do this - create tags within html documents based on text and content of said document - that would save me so much time in the long-run.

    • Matthew H
      January 29, 2014 at 9:54 pm

      I'm not really understanding the question. Sorry!

      Have you tried asking on

  3. John
    January 28, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    great demo!

    • Matthew H
      January 28, 2014 at 9:41 pm

      Thank you!

  4. David
    January 28, 2014 at 11:33 am


    • Matthew H
      January 28, 2014 at 9:48 pm

      Glad you like it. :D