Zotero In Minutes – How to Organise Your Research

(For Zotero version


What is Zotero? How do you use Zotero? And, how can a researcher get the most out of it?

In recent weeks, I have been sending out questionaires my colleagues who are pursuing MAs, PhDs and postgraduate studies. I wanted to know how people organise their research. I asked them some simple questions about how they go about their daily business.

In many cases I found that people (just as I am) are still using folders and MS Word on their computers to organise research materials and references. There are also a small number of software programs that most people like to use. Zotero has, without a doubt, been the most popular tool mentioned. However, in some cases, researchers have returned to me after I interviewed them with questions like, “is there an easy way to manage citations and bibliography?”Apparently we still need to address the question, “Why and how would you use Zotero?”

Zotero, as suggested by the company website, is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources. They even have the phonetic translation for those of us who would feel embarassed getting the name wrong: Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh].

The software models itself as a “personal research assistant”. On the website, the merits of using the software are described as follows;
Zotero is the only research tool that automatically senses content in your web browser, allowing you to add it to your personal library with a single click. Whether you’re searching for a preprint on arXiv.org, a journal article from JSTOR, a news story from the New York Times, or a book from your university library catalog, Zotero has you covered with support for thousands of sites.

It all seems so easy and straight forward. The homepage explains how you can “add” PDFs, images audio and video, make snapshots of web pages and “really anything else” so that you can find exactly what you are looking for with just a few keystrokes.

But what after that? How does the researcher get the most out of it from there, where does it fit into the writing process, and what extras allow you to feel like you are using the software in a correct and efficient way? The following posts aim to address these questions, explore how to combine Zotero with writing in MS Word in the MLA style, and finish out with an overview of its advantages over traditional research management methods.

Why now?

I started using Zotero in 2012, at the beginning of my research at King’s College, London. I was previously using folders on my laptop which just grew and then became categorised until I could not decide which folders to reference by date, and which folders to reference by subject or by researchers. I also had other folders for certain conferences and folders for places where fieldwork was carried out.
When I downloaded Zotero it became both a help and a hindrance. Finally, here was a way to bring all my work together in a dedicated program, easily. But as I was using it I found it to be really buggy, and it often slowed down on my computer. Sometimes it would not work properly when I tried to re-access material. It was slow to start up, and wasn’t compatible with all browsers. On top of that I was then using a new system alongside the good old folders. Which one to choose?
The good news: since 2012, Zotero has gotten better, and there are some new improvements which really make it stand out from before. In particular, it has improved in speed and this means that saving references quickly and effectively while you work can become a reality.

Starting With Zotero and the “connector”

A very straightforward tutorial on getting it installed can be found here:

One of the most important points in this “getting started” tutorial is that you install the “Zotero connector” extension on your browser so that you can create references in a more accurate manner.

1) Install Zotero Standalone from this link

2) Install Chrome browser here

3) Search for the connector plugin and add it to your browser “extensions” by visiting this url: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/category/extensions?hl=en-US

4) Restart your browser (use Chrome), fire up Zotero, and check them out.

The Zotero Structure – Collections

The basic structure of Zotero is that it allows you to create a bunch of folders which are then seen as “collections”. The difference between Zotero and simply creating folders on your computer for your research is that Zotero allows you to save your documents and citations inside of multiple collections (folders) at the same time – you don’t have to move them around between folders when you think your documents might belong in more than one collection.

To understand how to manage these collections, check out this screencast: https://www.zotero.org/support/screencast_tutorials/collections

Most of the time when I see something I need to cite, I can save snapshots of webpages by right-clicking anywhere in the page and selecting “Save Page to Zotero”, but you can also simply click on the button next to the address bar and it saves automatically.
But here is the catch – Zotero will be useful to you depending on how you save your references.

For me, the goal of using Zotero is to get my references into Zotero and then prime them for use as footnotes in Word when I begin writing. If you are going this route, you should make sure that your referencing style matches exactly every time you export a reference from Zotero to Word. I usually check my reference on www.citefast.com to see that the exported Zotero items correspond with the MLA 7th Edition style.

Saving in Zotero – Youtube clip example

First thing to remember when saving items is that on many websites the icons show up differently depending on the type of website or the content in the webpage that you are on. What you need to understand is what goes on when you click on the button that shows up in the browser and also which option is best to select when you right-click on a webpage.
For example, if you visit www.youtube.com and hover over the Zotero button on the top right, you will find that it doesn’t ask you to save the web page, but instead Save to Zotero (Embedded Metadata). Here is how that button will look:


If you then view a Youtube clip, a different button will appear – “Save to Zotero (Youtube)” like this:


The second button saves the reference as a type “video recording” – along with all metadata which is embedded with the uploaded clip. The advantage of this method is that when you want to access this video again, you can double click on the reference in Zotero and it will open the address of the reference that you saved correctly in the browser without having to copy and paste anything.

However, the problem with using the metadata button to save is that it will save as metadata in the Info panel, and when the time comes to writing, your reference will not export neatly into Word. So instead of clicking on this button, I usually right click the webpage, and with “Zotero Connector” I am then allowed to Save as Webpage. This can then be exported as a footnote perfectly formatted (for the purposes of this article in MLA format). Saving references as webpages allows me to access the url in the info panel anyway, so I tend to use this button most.

Saving to Zotero correctly for future use of footnotes

Saving References in Zotero – JSTOR example

JSTOR has it sorted when it comes to citation – visit their site and you’ll see a “cite” button beside any article which brings up MLA, APA and Chicago styles. They also have export for RefWorks, RIS and Text formats. When I first starting using Zotero, I chose to “Export a RIS file” which downloaded onto my computer (apparently you can easily create references when using this method). I then went to Zotero standalone and clicked on File > Import and added the RIS file. This seemed for a while to be the most straightforward method – below is the resultant footnote (the only difference is the word “Web” being used in Zotero references instead of Print which is more appropriate for articles in MLA)

Prince, J. Dyneley. ‘Slav and Celt’. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 59.3 (1920): 184–193. Print.
Prince, J. Dyneley. “Slav and Celt.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 59.3 (1920): 184-93. Web.

Unfortunately I found out when using this method that it creates a new collection (folder) in My Library of Zotero for the RIS file, as if I didn’t already have enough of these collections!

However, if you right click on the webpage on JSTOR’s website (in Chrome) and select Save to Zotero (JSTOR) from the connector menu, the reference will save as a “Journal Article”. In this way you are also saving the reference exactly as you will want it for MLA.

Saving from the JSTOR website

So these are just two examples of the types of saving that you must understand before you can get the best out of Zotero.

Helpful tips:

  1. Identifying Collections an Item is In

To see all the collections an item is in, select the item and then hold down the Option (OS X), Control (Windows) or Alt key (Linux). Keep the key pressed. After a brief delay, this highlights all the collections that contain the item.

2. Unfiled Items

Items that are not in any collection can be found in the “Unfiled Items” folder found under “My Library”. This folder can also be selected by right-clicking “My Library” and selecting “Show Unfiled Items”.


In my post next time, I will go into more examples, see what it looks like in MS Word, and then finish off with an discussion on the tips, tricks and advantages of Zotero.

Let me know what your thoughts are, especially what might be improved in this article, by adding a comment below (note you need to click on submit once and then refresh the page for comments to be seen). Click on the “subscribe” button to be notified of the next article in the series.


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