Librarian-approved, Time-saving Research Tips, Part 8: Use Zotero to Create your Bibliography

Note: this is the final post in an 8-part series of tips designed to make you a better researcher.

This last tip is one of my favorites. Whenever I show it to students, they always say, "Wow! Why didn't I know about this earlier?!" :)

Zotero is a free extension for the Firefox internet browser* that allows you to save publication information for books and articles, then automatically generate in-text citations and bibliographies using those sources.

That explanation is a little abstract, so let me rephrase it: Zotero creates your bibliography for you!

I won't go into the details of downloading and installing Zotero here, since the Zotero web site gives easy-to-follow instructions on how to do that. Make sure that you also download and install the plugin for Microsoft Word/OpenOffice; this is the piece that allows you to generate your bibliography and insert citations into the text of your paper.

Once you've got Zotero installed, capturing citation info is a breeze. There are several ways to do this:

  • In the library catalog, click on the title of the book you want to save. You can either click the index card icon that appears in your URL bar, or you can click the "Export to EndNote/Zotero" link on the right-hand side of the page. Zotero will scan the page for the book's publication information, and save it in your Zotero library.
  • In an article database, click on the title of the article you want to save. Click the index card icon that appears in your URL bar. Zotero will capture the article's publication information and save it for you.
  • On a web page, click the Zotero icon in the lower right corner of your browser window. Your Zotero library will pop up. Click the button that looks like a piece of paper with a green plus sign next to it (if you hover over the button, it will say, "Create New Item From Current Page"). Zotero will automatically detect the web page information and save it in your library. (You can use this method to save book and article information, too).

If you notice that Zotero isn't grabbing all the information, you can manually update the record--just open your Zotero panel, click on the record you want to edit, and start typing in information.

Now comes the magical part: using Zotero to add citations to your paper. Open up Microsoft Word (or Open Office) and start typing your paper. If you've installed the Zotero plug-in, you should see an icon for it in your tool bar.

  • To insert an in-text citation, click the "Zotero Insert Citation" button. A window will pop up, asking you which citation style you're using and which source you're citing. Follow the steps--make sure you tell Zotero which page the citation is from--and insert. Voila! Your correctly-formatted citation is inserted.
  • To insert your whole bibliography, start a new page at the end of your paper and click the "Zotero Insert Bibliography" button. In the pop-up window, indicate which sources you want to include, and insert. With the click of a button, your bibliography is created. :)
  • Even better, the Zotero plug-in syncs your paper with your Zotero library--so if you change something in the library, the bibliography in your paper will be updated automatically. Finally, you can use the "Zotero Edit Bibliography" button to add or remove sources from your bibliography.

Now for the bad news: Zotero is a software product, and nowhere near as smart as a human. The citations it generates are only as good at the information it receives! That means if something is not capitalized correctly in the original database, the citation in your bibliography will not be capitalized correctly, either.

So, before you turn in your paper, you should definitely look over your bibliography to make sure everything is formatted correctly. We have several citation guides on our web site that can help you with this.

The bottom line, though, is that Zotrero can be a HUGE time saver, even if you have to fix some errors in your final bibliography. If you've got questions about Zotero, let me know and I can try to help you. The Zotero support web site is also fabulous, and is the best place to go for help.

*If you're not using Firefox, you should definitely start today! It's an open-source product, which means people have created all kinds of nifty add-ons to help you do more with your internet browsing. You can learn more about Firefox and download it for free here: https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/.

In this series: