How to Capture and Cite Sources with Zotero

Jack Dougherty

Yesterday it happened again. Every time I teach a class or give a guest lecture about the research-to-writing process, I pose this question: Do you currently use a bibliography management tool to keep track of books and articles you’ve read, so that you can easily cite them in your writing? While of my undergraduates have never used these tools, I continue to be surprised by gatherings of graduate students in reading-intensive fields, such as history, where only half of the audience raise their hands. And when I talk further with the half who use these tools, many confide that they still don’t fully understand how to effectively utilize them. Why not? Probably because it’s still uncommon for scholars to openly teach, share, and learn ways of composing our written works, despite the fact that it’s the primary way we evaluate the quality of our students and faculty. This mismatch between the high value we place on writing, and the limited ways we teach about the process, never ceases to amaze me.

zoteroTo address this problem, I’ve blended a three-minute visual demonstration on why and how to use a bibliographic management tool into my broader presentations on the research-to-writing process. This demo is relevant to anyone working on long-form expository writing with source citations, including undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Incorporating a bibliographic management tool into your workflow may improve the quality of your scholarship, or at minimum, preserve your sanity. While there are several applications on the market, my favorite is Zotero, a freely downloadable and open-source application from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.[1] Many people describe Zotero as “iTunes for your books and articles.” But it does much more. And in case you missed this, let me repeat that it’s free.

In my three-minute presentation I briefly demonstrate basic ways to use Zotero, such as capturing sources from the web and citing them in the preferred format of your academic field (such as Chicago-style endnotes in history, or APA or MLA in-line citations and bibliographies in the social sciences and literature fields). If you’re an educator for students doing long-form expository writing, consider designing your own quick demo to show in class. Or invite a student to do it. Or point your class to my video tutorial, which appears at the bottom of this page. Or assign them to read this essay.

The web version of this essay includes some looped GIF animations to illustrate dynamic concepts that are not easily captured with static images.

***

1) Download Zotero and extensions for your preferred browser

When I download Zotero, currently at version 4, my personal preference is Zotero Standalone for Mac, with the Chrome browser extension.

2) Start the Zotero App

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 icon in your Applications folder.

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

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

3) Capture Sources from your Browser into your Zotero Library

When browsing sources online, Zotero-friendly websites will display small icons in the search bar (such as a miniature book or article). Click the icon to automatically capture the source metadata into your Zotero library, including any PDF files or web snapshots, if available. For example, try saving a book citation from WorldCat or Amazon, or an article from Google Scholar or JStor, or a news story from The New York Times or The Connecticut Mirror.

Capture sources from the web to your Zotero library

Capture sources from the web to your Zotero library

Click a source icon to save to your Zotero library

Click a source icon to save to your Zotero library

If no Zotero source icon appears in your browser, you can still capture partial information in Zotero in one of these ways, then manually insert any missing metadata that the computer could not automatically detect and insert for you (such as author, title, date, etc.).

  • In Zotero Firefox, click the “Create New Item from Current Page” button.

    Create a new item in Zotero Firefox

    Create a new item in Zotero Firefox

  • In Zotero 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.)

    In Zotero Standalone, right-click to save current page

    In Zotero Standalone, right-click to save current page

Also, you may manually enter Zotero entries for items not available on the web. For any Zotero item, type in your reading notes or tags, or sort into hierarchical folders (called collections) by topic.

4) Choose Your Academic Citation Style

After creating your Zotero library items, you can easily insert them into your writing using any academic citation style. If you’re unsure which format best fits your academic writing, view sample papers from Diana Hacker and Barbara Fister that illustrate leading citation styles across different disciplines. Most historians use Chicago-style footnotes or endnotes, where numerical references in the body of the essay direct readers to full citations at the bottom of the page or end of the essay, like this.[2] In other fields, authors commonly use in-line citations, where the body of the essay contains parenthetical references that match up with a bibliography of works cited at the end, such as the APA style—(Hacker and Fister, 2010)—with the year, or the MLA style—(Hacker and Fister, 15)—with page numbers.

See sample papers with citation styles in Hacker and Fister

See sample papers with citation styles in Hacker and Fister

5) Set Zotero Preferences to your Citation Style

In Zotero, click the Gear Symbol > Preferences > Export> to set your default output format. My personal preference is “Chicago Manual of Style (full note),” rather than the shorter “(note)” version, because I prefer to display full citations in the notes, rather than forcing readers to search for this information in a separate bibliography.

Select your Zotero Preferences to Export Citations

Select your Zotero Preferences to Export Citations

6) Multiple Ways to Import Zotero Items into Your Writing

With Zotero, there are many ways to insert formatted sources into your scholarship, beginning with basic methods to more advanced ones.

– To create a basic Chicago-style note in Microsoft Word or Google Documents, select the Insert>Footnote menu, then hold the shift key and drag any items. (Holding the shift key uses the note format, rather than bibliography format.)

Hold Shift key and drag items to create footnotes in MS Word

Hold Shift key and drag items to create footnotes in MS Word

– To create a basic bibliography in most word processor, select all of the relevant entries in Zotero, then drag-and-drop them into the document, where they will be sorted alphabetically by author. Or for additional options, select any Zotero items and right-click (or control-click on Mac) to select “Create Bibliography from Selected Items(s).”

Choose a format and drag items to insert a bibliography

Choose a format and drag items to insert a bibliography

– For more advanced users, connect Zotero directly to MS Word or Open Office by downloading and installing one of the Zotero Word Processor Plugins. This option allows authors to insert dynamic citations that will automatically update if the Zotero source is modified.

– See also the Zotero Documentation Page for a Quick Start Guide and other tutorials.[3]

– For more advanced tips and tools, see Zotero posts in the ProfHacker blog on the Chronicle of Higher Education site (including Amy Cavendar’s tip about using Readability for more citation-friendly sites), and also The Zoteroist blog (including this helpful post on keyboard shortcut strategies).

My video tutorial demonstrates how I install and use Zotero Standalone for Mac with the Chrome browser on my computer.[4]

See also in this volume:

How to Sync Sources and Share Group Libraries with Zotero

How to cite:

Jack Dougherty, “How to Capture and Cite Sources with Zotero,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2015), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/how-to-zotero/.


  1. Zotero, Center for History and New Media, http://www.zotero.org.
  2. Diana Hacker and Barbara Fister, “Research and Documentation Online 5th Edition,” Research and Documentation Online, 5th Edition, 2010, http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/resdoc5e/.
  3. Zotero documentation page, https://www.zotero.org/support/.
  4. Jack Dougherty, How to Capture and Cite Sources with Zotero Standalone v4, YouTube video, 2013, https://youtu.be/HlvDyIFeMrE.

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