Zotero, I love you

Frank Cranmer, over at Law and Religion UK asked me to write a post about Zotero, which is a free citation/bibliographic tool. He asked me several weeks ago, and I’m only just now getting around to it, what with having had exams and an essay to write.

But here we are.

I’m not going to go into all the technical details of how Zotero works, because, quite frankly, I’m not qualified to do it. Being old enough to have grey hair, my lessons on Computer Science at school (we didn’t call it ‘Information Technology’ in the old days) were done on computers with black screens and green writing and, oddly, in my further career I have never had the need to make a computer draw repeating patterns on the screen by giving it a series of quite complex commands. Consequently, my approach to computers has been to press some buttons and see what happens. I have never yet got into trouble I couldn’t get out of, but I do know my limitations.

What I propose to do is tell you how I use Zotero, and why I think everyone who has to write articles should use it, and provide some useful links where other people, with, you know, actual qualifications have written technical things.

Zotero – Why is it the best thing since sliced bread?

Zotero is a tool for referencing articles and adding bibliographies, all with a touch of a button. Without such software, adding citations to an article is a real pain in the posterior. As soon as you added them all, you’d discover that you’d missed one out. Or the article would read better if you swapped two paragraphs over. And, of course, that would mean that all your numbering (particularly if you were using a system like Vancouver or OSCOLA) would have to be changed… and then you’d forget, half-way through doing that, whether you’d already changed a number or were just about to… and it would all go horribly wrong.

Or you’d get it all done perfectly, referenced in OSCOLA, and Management would say “Actually, I’d prefer the referencing to be in Vancouver.” Or the other way around. At which point, the only four appropriate courses of action would be a) scream, b) cry, c) kill someone, d) all of the above simultaneously.

And the longer the article, the worse it got. A 20,000 word dissertation could mean hours – or days – of figuring out the referencing.

But all this is in the past, because now we have Zotero. With Zotero, you can put in your citations at the touch of a button, and add a whole bibliography with a click. And if Management decides they want Vancouver instead of OSCOLA, or Harvard instead of either of them, you can change over in seconds.

And Zotero is free. You don’t have to pay a subscription (unless you want lots of storage), and you aren’t tied to an institution. Your Zotero library of references will go with you wherever you go.


Zotero is designed to work with Firefox and Microsoft Word or LibreOffice. The standalone version will also work with Chrome and Safari. If you work on an iPad, you can get a bookmarklet or third-party app to add and edit references, but so far, as far as I know, there is no way to actually use Zotero to add references to documents in Pages.

How I Use Zotero

I freely admit to not being a Zotero power-user. It probably does an awful lot of useful things that I don’t know about. But the level I use it at is still incredibly good.

Referencing Documents

The main advantage, of course, is that you can insert a citation into your document with the click of the mouse (well, technically two or three clicks). You don’t have to type it out: as long as the metadata has been put into Zotero properly, the software will do it all for you.

The second advantage is that when you move text around, your citations change to match. All you have to do is ‘refresh’, and you’re all correct again – no risk of missing out one and then trying to figure out what ’35’ was before you changed all the numbers…

I know I have a case/article for that…

Since Zotero allows you to add your own keywords (which it calls tags) to all your library entries, and you can make up whatever keywords you like, this means you can run a search on, for example, “Denning” and come up with all your entries related to that topic. This is useful when you know you’ve got references for a particular subject, but you just can’t remember the name… (Of course, although Zotero does put some notes in itself, some of its choices are pretty wacky, and it’s not a mind reader. So it’s always best to go through the notes and keyword each database entry with words you think might be useful.)

You can do this prospectively as well: add things you think might be useful, as well as things you are definitely intending to add to your document right now.

You can also put your library entries in folders, which is especially useful if you have lots, or you work on very different topics – in my case, pharmacy and law.

What’s it about?

Zotero’s library has a section called ‘notes’, and this is a free-text box where you can add a short summary of exactly what that particular entry is about (ideal for case summaries). Useful if you have several cases/articles with the same keywords (tags) and you can’t remember which one is the one you want.

Different day, different computer…

Zotero works by storing your library locally, but also on the web (somewhere). This means that if you work on several different computers (e.g. at work and at home), as long as you have Firefox and Zotero installed on both, you can synch your library and use it wherever you are. (Of course, the disadvantage of this is that if you happen to have to work somewhere where you can’t use Zotero, you feel like you’ve had a limb chopped off.)

Zotero for Lawyers

Zotero was not invented for lawyers, and, true, it doesn’t handle the citation of cases and legislation with the effortless brilliance with which it handles journal articles and books. However, it is still far, far better than doing it by hand.

Bailii does support Zotero, and when you open your case, you see a cute little yellow set of scales in the browser address bar. Consequently, even when I’m mostly looking for cases in Westlaw, I use Bailii to find the case and add the data to Zotero. The way it handles the metadata has been improved recently, but I find the best way to make it work is to add the case to Zotero (by clicking on the little yellow scales) and then check to see what’s been imported. Then I make sure the citation is all in the Title field and delete pretty much everything else except the web address. This way, I can make sure the citation shows up correctly when I put it in my document.

Heinonline also supports Zotero – here is their tips article.

Westlaw and Lexis do not support Zotero, so you have to add your data to Zotero manually. This is, however, still worth doing – because once you’ve done it, then you’ve got it forever (or until you delete it).



Zotero website – for downloading the software.

Zotero word processor plugins – for downloading the word processor plugins.

Zotero style repository – to download new referencing styles if the one(s) you use are not amongst those that Zotero comes with as standard.

Zotero, Endnote, Mendeley, Refworks comparison chart – a chart comparing the available reference management softwares, so you can see which is best for you.

Georgia State University’s Zotero User Guide – because there’s no reason for me to write one if someone else has already done it…


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