Zotero: The best citation tool around, and it’s free 1

Zotero is a free-software to manage bibliographies and citations with advanced functions and an easy interface

As a doctoral student a lot of my time goes into managing my references. Thankfully there are many tools around to help me manage my references and to speed up the process of inserting citations while I write my papers. After a lot of trial and error I settled on Refworks that I was really happy with. Unfortunately it is a paid software with a stiff fee that I may not be able to afford once I leave the university. Thankfully, a friend told me about Zotero that has all the important functions of Refworks and Endnote, and even has some advantages over them – and all this for free.

Reference database

Zotero is a Firefox add-on (a tool that can be installed in Firefox browser). It can be installed with a click of a button from the Zotero website and is ready to use in minutes. Once it is installed we can add references such as books, articles, movies, e-mails, laws, videos and other items that we wish to record and cite. References can be stored in folders and can also be tagged. We can add multiple notes for each reference and can also link these notes to related notes. We can also store articles, web pages and other electronic documents along with the reference. Zotero thus acts as a fantastic database to store, categorise and to maintain our references.

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Adding references in a jiffy

Adding all details of a reference like names of all authors, publisher, year of publication, etc. is a laborious process. Zotero makes this process really easy by allowing us to import references from a large range of websites. You can visit your library website, Google Scholar, Google Books, and other bibliographic databases like JSTOR, Econlit, Lexis-Nexis, etc. and import full citations with the click of a button. All we need to do is to look for a small icon in the address bar of Firefox, as we are browsing these websites, and click it. It will get added to Zotero automatically and normally we can get full bibliographic details with just a click. Zotero also provides us with the ability to browse many online newspapers including NY Times.com and The Hindu and get full citations for the article (including author, date, section, etc.) using the same process.

Creating bibliographies

To create a bibliography all we need to do is to select the references of our interest and drag them to MS Windows or any other word processor (or for that matter even Google Docs or your e-mail window). A fully formatted bibliography will be created in seconds. We can choose a style of our choice from a large menu of standard styles including APA, Chicago, MLA, etc.

Citing in research papers

If you wish to cite references in MS Word or Open office document Zotero offers a plug-in that makes this job simple. Simply download the plug-in and install it your computer and Zotero will be available as an Add-in (in case of MS word). A window will open when you click the Zotero icon in the add-in with your complete library. You can search the reference you want to cite and add it with a click of a button. This will create an in-line citation and also a bibliographic reference. We can change the style of the bibliography (say from Chicago to MLA) with a click.


If you work from multiple computers, you can create a Zotero account and store a copy of your references online. These can be used in a computer you work on regularly at a different location by installing Zotero in all computers you regularly use. It takes minutes to set up and works smoothly once it is put in place.

Migrating from Refworks or Endnote

It is relatively easy to migrate from Refworks, Endnote or other citation managers. We can just export all references and import them into Zotero painlessly. [There are some tricks of the trade to make this process complete, on which I hope to write soon].

Summing up

Zotero is powerful, free and simple to use. The website has good documentation and the open-source community is constantly at work in adding new features and answering new questions. One disadvantage of Zotero at this point is that, unlike Refworks, we cannot use it in public computers since our library will be downloaded and maintained in Firefox. But for most of us who work in universities and homes, Zotero is as good as Refworks and perhaps a little better than Endnote; and unlike these software, Zotero comes absolutely free.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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One thought on “Zotero: The best citation tool around, and it’s free

  • Jenn

    Just wanted to say thank you. I am working on two research papers for the end of my quarter. I have been looking into Zotero and with the info provided here I am going to give it a shot. Thanks again for the helpful and clear advice!