Zotero and citation managers

As a student in grad school, one of the most valuable tools you’ll need to use is a citation manager. A citation manager is a software program that allows you to track bibliographic references for all the books, chapters, and journal articles you’ll read. They can even be used to track movies, podcasts, websites, artwork, conference papers, and so on. They’re pretty fascinating in that regard. When you are browsing online resources, you can use browser plugins to save items to your citation manager, and when you are writing papers, there are also plugins that work with most word processors that will allow you to create inline citations and bibliographies.

Through my employer, I have access to EndNote, but I choose not to use it for a variety of reasons. The first reason is cost. While I can get to from my employer for free, if I stopped working for them, I would lose access to all of the citations I saved in the program. I could pay for a subscription, but if I weren’t employed, I would probably be watching my money. Another reason I don’t use it is that there isn’t a client for Linux. It will work on Macs and Windows PCs, but at home, I use Linux and prefer to have a citation manager that does the same. The last reason is a bit trivial, but I’m constantly confusing the name EndNote with OneNote (a Microsoft product for taking notes) and Evernote (a different product for taking notes). They must have all used the same focus group or something when they were coming up with names.


An animated gif file showing someone mysterious using a sword to carve a Z in the seat of a soldier's trousers as he is bent over.
Zotero leaving its mark.

The citation manager I use is called Zotero, which sort of reminds me of Zorro, and maybe this is appropriate because it makes Zotero seem like the heroic citation manager in a grad student’s life. It’s pretty easy to point out it’s advantages over EndNote: Zotero is free, so even if I left I would still have access to my citations; it runs on Linux; and the name is memorable. But it has some other advantages over EndNote as well. Since I setup an account on the Zotero website, I can keep my citations backed up, and I can run Zotero on multiple devices and know all of the citations are available. Creating an account on the Zotero website isn’t a requirement per se, but if you want to run it on multiple devices, or if you want some way to create an online backup of your citations, then you’ll need an account.

I won’t claim to be an expert on Zotero or citation managers in general, but I’m getting more used to working with it. The plugins I mentioned earlier make using Zotero so much easier. While I could enter everything myself, having the Firefox plugin and the LibreOffice plugin make it so much easier to use. When browsing through online journal databases, or any other website, the add-on for Zotero (called Zotero Connector), makes saving a reference as easy as clicking an icon in the toolbar. Most online journals offer an option to save an item or export it. I like to do this by exporting it in RIS format. RIS stands for Research Information Systems and it’s a file format used by many citation managers and other research software. Zotero Connector recognizes this information, and as long as the Zotero app is open on your computer, it will automatically send it to the app. Easy, peasy. There is a little quirk however. If you have a bunch of subcollections, as I do, then the subcollection where you want the reference stored has to be the one that’s open in Zotero. In trying to make things simple, they left out a step that could ask you where you want the reference stored. It’s a minor quibble, overall.

Another minor quibble is that sometimes the imported references contain the wrong information. It’s not the fault of Zotero, but of whoever filled out the information that created the RIS file.This normally happens with the publisher name and book series information, but can happen on any field. Because of these rare errors, I try to double check the citations and bibliographies when I bring them into a document.

Using Zotero with LibreOffice

Speaking of bringing citations into a document, there are at least a couple of ways to do this. The first way is the simplest. In Zotero, right-click on the item you want to bring to the document, then choose Create Bibliography from Item… This will open a small window with lots of options. At the top is a box labelled Citation Style. Zotero comes with several commonly used citation styles, and it’s possible to add more. The program I’m in uses normally uses the American Psychological Association (APA) style, so I most often use that. The Language box is the language used in the citation/bibliography, which will probably be the same language used by your computer system. The Output Mode is either a citation or a bibliography. Citations normally appear inline thus (Hawkes, 2021), while bibliographies typically appear at the end of a work and contain much more information, so choose whichever is most appropriate. The Output Method offers a few options, but I normally just use Copy to Clipboard. With the citation or bibliography item copied to the clipboard, I go into whichever document I’m working on, and paste it where I want it to appear. I like this method because it works for everything, including plain text documents and note taking apps, and doesn’t require a special plugin. The downside is that the citation/bibliography is is plain text, without any special formatting. Since most citation styles require special formatting such as italics, I have to do that by hand, or use the next option.

Zotero has plugins for LibreOffice Writer, Microsoft Word, and Google Docs. If your preferred word processor is Apple Pages, you’re out of luck. Once you have the plugin installed, open Zotero and the word processor, and you should be good to go. In LibreOffice Writer, it appears as a set of five icons in the toolbar. On my computer, they first showed up on the left side of the toolbar, but I was able to edit to toolbar to get them moved to the right side.

In Writer, click on the Add/Edit Citation icon and it will open a small window that shows all the items you’ve saved in Zotero. Choose the one you want, then click the OK button. This will add an inline citation for you. After you’ve done that, go to the bibliography section of your work and click on the spot where you want to add the bibliography item. Click on the Add/Edit Bibliography icon, and it should automatically add the properly formatted bibliography item. If you click on the Set Document Preferences icon, you can choose your preferred citation style, though it tries to get this from Zotero if you’ve already set it in there.

Writing papers is part of college life, and one of the best way to keep track of the books and articles you’re reading is to use a citation manager. And using a citation manager with the proper word processor plugin takes the guesswork out of the formatting. While there are a few citation manager programs out there, I like Zotero because it’s free, works on all platforms, and has a name that’s easy to remember.

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