By Drew Thomas |

The first of our new series on that unavoidable and time-intensive part of the PhD experience, citation management, looks at one of the online products on offer which can make citing easier and more efficient.


My high school literature teacher, Ms. Baker, was a citation queen. We were required to write citations on a separate index card for each book that we planned to use in our essay. While I thank her for teaching me how to appropriately cite my work, can you imagine if we still had to write down every citation? I hope you still don’t do that.

Citation management is the key to organizing your research. It saves you an enormous amount of time. I am sure you know people that use a citation manager and know that you should be using one yourself. But there are many different options out there. It can be confusing to decide which one to use. This post—which focuses on Zotero—is the first in a series of posts intended to help you decide which is best for you.

Zotero bills itself as ‘a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources.’ That sounds nice, but how does it work? Basically, Zotero is like iTunes for documents. You have your library which includes all of your citations and multiple ‘playlists’ for your essays, presentations, and projects.

Zotero works as an extension in Firefox. But if you don’t use Firefox, you can download a standalone version, which has plugins for Chrome or other browsers of your choice. It is a free service with unlimited storage, as it’s stored on your computer. However, they have a subscription service if you want to back up your data online and have access across multiple devices.

The best feature of Zotero is its browser plugin. You can save bibliographic information from JSTOR, the New York Times, Google Scholar, and pretty much every type of webpage. You just click the plugin icon at the top of your browser and it automatically records the citation in Zotero. It’s that easy.


Zotero also allows you to attach PDF documents to your citations and fully incorporates them into its search functions, letting you search within a document. You can add tags to your citations to organise them by keyword. You can also organize your projects by creating the equivalent of a playlist in iTunes. You just drag and drop the citations into your projects. It is different from a folder because the citation stays in your main library, even if it is moved into a project.

Zotero is also integrated with Microsoft Office. If you click and drag a citation to Word it pastes the citation according to the style guide you previously selected. Footnotes made easy! When you are finished with your essay and need to create the bibliography, just select all the citations in Zotero (or from the project ‘playlist’ you created) and Zotero will automatically alphabetize the works by author for your bibliography. My jaw dropped the first time I did this.

If you already have a large collection of citations, you can import them (e.g. from EndNote) into Zotero. And in addition to adding citations you find online, you can drag and drop files from your computer into Zotero.


In sum, here are the top four ways I use Zotero:

  • Quickly saving a citation I found online via the browser plugin.
  • Checking to see if I already have a document in my library.
  • Creating ‘playlists’ to keep track of project specific bibliographies.
  • Creating footnotes or a bibliography.

You can easily become overwhelmed with documents during your PhD research. Using a citation manager is a must in the 21st century, bringing you organisation, sanity, and extra time (or at least the illusion thereof…)

What citation manager do you use? Let us know in the comments!


Drew Thomas is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews studying the Protestant Reformation and the History of the Book. Follow him on Twitter @DrewBThomas and Instagram @drewbt.