How to capture, manage, and cite sources with Zotero 4 (basic)

As scholarly authors, we are expected to support our claims with evidence and to provide a “paper trail” for readers to trace and reexamine our sources. But students are often confused by the varying norms for presenting citations across academic disciplines — APA, MLA, Chicago, etc. — and it confuses scholars, too. Citation management tools, such as Zotero (a free and open-source application from the Center for History and New Media), make the mechanics of citing sources much easier, and integrate nicely with an increasing number of online search platforms. Read the tutorial below and/or view the video screencast I created for my students at Trinity College.

Download Zotero (currently version 4.0) and choose the options that match your preferred browser. For example, I prefer the Chrome browser on a Mac, so I download Zotero Standalone for Mac, with the Chrome browser extension. Follow the installation instructions. (Note: Zotero does not work easily with a Chromebook. Ask me for advice.)

ZoteroDownload4.0Start up Zotero. If you choose Zotero for Firefox, click on the icon in the bottom-right corner of your browser. If you chose Zotero Standalone, look for the Zotero application.

Zotero for Firefox (left) and Zotero Standalone App (right).

Zotero for Firefox (left) and Zotero Standalone (right).

Capture Sources in your Browser with Zotero
When searching many scholarly websites, your browser will display special symbols (such as a miniature book). Click on the symbol to automatically capture the source in Zotero. At Trinity College, try to capture sources from Zotero-friendly sites, such as:

If no special symbol appears, you can still capture partial information in Zotero in one of these ways, then manually insert any missing data (author, title, date, etc.):

  • In the Firefox version, click the “Create New Item from Current Page” button. 
  • In the Standalone version, right-click and select “Save Zotero Snapshot from Current Page.” (To right-click on a Mac, press down with two fingers on a trackpad, OR press the Control key while clicking.) 

You can also add personal reading notes and PDF attachments, and sort Zotero entries into hierarchical folders. But remember that Zotero is not fool-proof. As the author, it’s your responsibility to check, correct, and fill in key data that may be missing.

Choose your Citation Style

Once you have created entries in Zotero, you can export them into your writing using any academic citation style. Some authors prefer APA (American Psychological Association) or MLA (Modern Languages Association) in-line citations, where the body of the essay contains parenthetical references that match up with a full list of works cited at the end. Other authors (like me) prefer Chicago-style footnotes, where numerical references in the body of the essay direct readers to individual citations at the bottom of the page.

In my interdisciplinary courses, I accept work submitted using any of the major academic citation styles, but other faculty require students to use a particular format. If you’re unsure which format works best for your writing, view sample papers (from Hacker and Fister) that illustrate leading citation styles across different academic disciplines.

Click to view sample papers using different citation styles.

Set Zotero Export Preferences to your Citation Style

Click the gear symbol to select Preferences > Export > Default Output Format:

In my writing, I prefer “Chicago Manual of Style (full note),” rather than the shorter default “(note)” version, because I wish to display the full citation in the footnotes to avoid forcing readers to search for this information in a separate bibliography.

Many Ways to Automatically Import Citations into your Writing

To create an APA/MLA bibliography at the end of a Word/Google/WordPress document, select all of the relevant entries in Zotero, then drag-and-drop them into the document, where they will be alphabetically sorted and formatted.

To create a Chicago-style footnote in a Word document, select the Insert > Footnote menu, then press the SHIFT key + drag-and-drop the Zotero entry into the document footnote. To do the same in a Google Document, press CMD + SHIFT + C to copy the Zotero enty, then paste.

Or connect Zotero directly to Word or OpenOffice with the Word Processor Plugins.

Here’s a video screencast to demonstrate how I install and use Zotero Standalone for Mac with the Chrome browser on my computer.

*More to come: To import a word-processed document (using any citation style) into WordPress, save it into Word format, select and copy the entire document, then select the “Paste from Word” button in WordPress. 

For intermediate users, see how to create interactive footnotes in WordPress, using the SimpleNotes plugin (*to come, needs updating*)

Next step: How to sync your personal Zotero data and share group libraries with others

3 Responses to How to capture, manage, and cite sources with Zotero 4 (basic)

  1. Pingback: Bibliography building software | Gordon F. M. Rakita

  2. Lecaudey Louise says:

    Hey, can you please explain me how to manage Zotero with a chromebook ?

    • Louise – Great question. Adding references is possible on a Chromebook (and most browsers, using the Zotero bookmarklet), but there are big limitations. At present, you cannot save references to a particular collection (aka a Zotero folder), and worse, there is no easy way to add Zotero citations to your writing on a Chromebook.

      For more details, see this Zotero forum link, especially the most recent posts.

      I’ve pasted the most relevant ones below.

      rgouldin May 20th 2013
      Just got a chromebook, and was very pleased to find that Zotero does (more or less) work on it! The Chrome Zotero connector, installed originally on my Mac, was installed onto my chromebook when it synced to my Google account. Just out of curiosity, I clicked on the Book icon that appeared when I was on Google books — and it opened another instance of Chrome, open to Zotero; I logged on, and the item was added to my library, together with an attachment to the Google Books link. Intrigued, I then went to JSTOR to search for a couple of things I’ve been looking for; I clicked the Article icon, and the items were each transferred into my Zotero library, together with the pdf attachments!

      So, in summary, you certainly *can* use Zotero on your Chromebook. Install the Chrome Zotero connector, open a window logged on to your Zotero account, and then you should be able to go about collecting references and adding them (even with attachments) to your database just as on a “regular” computer.

      jordanbarrett Sep 4th 2014
      So you can save data and documents to your Zotero account on a Chromebook, but can you actually cite anything? That’s my big question.

      I assume a person would have to use Google Docs or Office 360, but how do you cite/footnote a source from Zotero without manually copying it? This is where it seems Chromebooks and Zotero won’t play well together since it appears to still need the Standalone version. Is this right? Or am I missing something? Thanks for any help

      adamsmith Sep 4th 2014
      This is where it seems Chromebooks and Zotero won’t play well together since it appears to still need the Standalone version. Is this right?

      that’s right. There’s some work on getting GoogleDocs to work with Zotero via the web API, but I don’t think that would happen very fast (and this is all 3rd party work, nothing by Zotero proper).

      jordanbarrett Sep 4th 2014
      Helpful to know, thanks

      lelandhoover Sep 7th 2014
      As a Chromebook user and researcher, I am very interested that Zotero plays well with Chromebooks and Google Drive/Docs. Is there an active project to make them play together for citations? If so, how can I contact the project team to find out more?

      adamsmith Sep 7th 2014
      doesn’t look terribly active recently afaict, but here’s the relevant thread on the dev list:!topic/zotero-dev/90ix5AiEOzQ
      (note though, that the dev list is really only for dev discussion, not a place to express general support for development etc.)

      earcanal Nov 19th 2014
      I replicated the process oulined by @rgouldin which covers most of my use case. The only niggle was that my item wasn’t saved directly to the collection I wanted it in (I had to move it afterwards from the main Library). Is it possible to save directly to a specific collection using the Chrome Zotero connector?

      bwiernik Nov 19th 2014
      No, without a local client, the Chrome connector can’t save directly to collections or to Group libraries.

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