A Grad Student’s Guide to Zotero

By: Lidia Levkovitch, graduate student in Comparative Literature

As we progress through our academic careers, the bulk of Really Important Data we accumulate – bibliographic records, web bookmarks, downloaded articles, chapter scans, annotated PDFs of all kinds, and lecture notes – keeps growing. And growing. And growing.

And then comes graduate school.

And then our hard drive cr… but some hypothetical scenarios are better left unarticulated.

Sooner or later, (and not too late, one would hope) the need for reliable storage and for a piece of software to organize our hoarded treasure becomes obvious. Zotero (www.zotero.org) is a tool that offers solutions to both problems. Designed with the needs of the academic community in mind, it boasts features that help researchers take full advantage of print and digital resources alike.

Zotero allows the user to collect bibliographical records and physical copies of digital resources, creating a database that can be stored on a personal computer or in Zotero’s cloud and synchronized across multiple devices, ensuring that losing a laptop no longer amounts to losing years of research. Zotero’s storage is unlimited for bibliographical data but limited for attached files. This limitation may be bypassed by paying for extra storage or by setting up one’s own file storage through another service provider (the different storage and syncing options are described in this section of Zotero’s user manual: https://www.zotero.org/support/sync).

How Zotero works

No less important than no longer having to worry about the safety of one’s research data is being able to organize it while simultaneously pursuing several projects, possibly interrelated, but not necessarily so. The structure and the organizing principles are entirely up to the user, who can create as many folders as needed; the same item may belong to more than one project, and can be included  by reference, as a link, or as a physical copy (for example, when the same PDF has two different sets of annotations).

When importing an item, Zotero supplies some tags (usually mapping to subjects in library catalogs), but user-defined tags can be added. The tags enhance the search capabilities within the database, which, of course, can also be searched by author and title keywords. Each record can be further extended by adding notes, scanned chapters, or anything else that may seem useful. As for me, I try to write a short summary for every record I add (this makes putting together an annotated bibliography at the end of an independent study a breeze!) and to scan tables of contents for books, unless they are automatically loaded from library catalog records, which Zotero consults when it looks up an item.


Getting records into Zotero is easy: the only time one needs to type anything is when the item in question has no identifiers, such as an ISBN, DOI or PMID; given one of these, Zotero creates a record automatically. Sometimes, there is no need to even know the ISBN, since Zotero’s web browser plugin recognizes a bibliographical record when it sees it (for example, on the screen of a search engine such as WorldCat or article database like JSTOR). This way, one click is all it takes to import an item. If full text of an article is available, one can proceed to add the downloaded article itself to Zotero or to link the record to a copy of it elsewhere on the hard drive. Another task Zotero successfully automates is the creation of bibliography. It supports MLA, Chicago, and, indeed, just about any other conceivable format.

To me, Zotero is a big time-saver that is up to all of the tasks I can think of in relation to my reading, writing, and teaching projects. Still, my endorsement must come with a disclaimer: there might be tasks that I have not actually thought about, and there are certainly other tools out there. To be quite frank, I saved myself agonizing doubts over choosing a tool to support my intellectual quests by not having tried anything else. I needed something to organize my projects, and some magic for generating term paper bibliography pages, and Zotero worked perfectly. Plus, it came recommended by Professor Parker, whose taste I trust entirely!

At the very least, if you still type your bibliography, it is worth a try. After all, if you later decide that you have to switch, Zotero can export your entire library to RefWorks, Endnote, and many other formats, but this is one function I never needed to test.