12 must know Zotero tips and techniques

Zotero is getting better and better. In a while, version 1.5 will bring synchronization, online backup of your library, +1100 CSL citation styles, and PDF metadata extraction (for the daring, a sync preview version is available). But even in its current incarnation Zotero is easily one of the best bibliographic managers out there. Here are twelve tips and tricks that help you to get the most out of it.

  1. Drag files from the web right into your library
    Got a reference in your library, but no PDF? Or saved an item from a repository which doesn’t provide a fulltext version? Do a quick search for the title on Google Scholar — it is good at finding PDFs on author’s webpages. If you find one, just drag the link from the page onto the reference in your library. Zotero stores and attaches the PDF for you.
  2. Enter a series of items by duplicating a template
    Adding a series of related references to your library? Start with one item for which you fill in the fields that are the same for all items (e.g. editors, book title, year, publisher, place) and duplicate it (Right-click > Duplicate item). Then fill in the particularities.
  3. Quick Copy a citation using Ctrl+Shift+C or drag and drop
    Sending a PDF to a colleague, or mentioning a reference somewhere? Quickly copy the citation by selecting the reference and pressing Ctrl+Shift+C (Cmd-Shift-C on the Mac), or simply drag it from Zotero onto any edit window (for example a new email). The default output style can be specified under Preferences > Export; the shortcut key can be customized under Shortcut keys.
  4. Have Zotero index your PDFs
    Zotero can index your PDF attachments and make them fully searchable, turning your library from a mere linked catalogue into a Google Books of sorts. The option is turned off by default because it relies on an external open source program (pdf2txt) which is not distributed with Zotero. However, Zotero can automatically install it and enable fulltext indexing: simply go to Preferences > Search and click on the ‘Check for installer’ button. For more info see pdf fulltext indexing in the Zotero documentation.
  5. Start quicksearch with ” to trigger advanced search
    By default, Zotero starts searching when you put the first few characters in the Search box. In a large library with fulltext indexing enabled, this can be tiresome (you wanted to look for “statistical methods”, but Zotero locks down searching for “st”). To avoid this, start your search with ” (double quote) to have Zotero wait until you finish typing and hit enter.
  6. Press Ctrl to find out in which collections an item is
    Looking at an item in your library and wondering whether you already categorized it? Press Control and Zotero will highlight the collections in which it is contained.
  7. Relocate your Zotero folder to a more sensible place
    The default place for the Zotero database and attachments in right in your Firefox profile, which isn’t the easiest to locate whichever OS you are on. Go to Preferences > Advanced to customize the storage location. You can place it in a folder that is included in your regular backup schedule or put it on a portable drive so that your library always travels with you (tip: if you work a lot on shared computers, combine it with Firefox Portable, which you can even use without administrator rights).
  8. Keep track of recent additions using a saved search
    Often you add new items without worrying about tagging or putting them in collections. Click Advanced search, select “Dated Added” > “is in the last” > X “days/months” and fill in the desired period; then save the search. This gives you a dynamically updated overview of your latest additions, so that you can go back to them and do the categorization and tagging work when it suits you.
  9. Tag multiple items at once
    Want to tag multiple items at once? Select them, make sure the tag selector is visible in the left pane, and drag them onto the tag you want to use. The tag will be applied to all items.
  10. Tag incomplete items to find them back and fix them later
    Sometimes you know an item has incomplete metadata (e.g. missing page numbers or publisher), but you don’t have the time to fix it right away. Make it a habit to tag such items (“needs metadata”) when you see them. Now you can find them and fix them whenever you have some time to kill.
  11. Use a separate folder for files to be ingested
    Someone gives you a bunch of PDFs to read; or you download a paper somewhere without having the metadata handy. Make it a habit to save such files in a subfolder /new/ in your Zotero folder. Then once in a while go through that folder. Do a quick search for the title on your favourite repository, grab the metadata, and then drag the PDF from your filemanager onto the reference in Zotero. Much better than having those loose PDFs scattered all over your hard drive (or in your mailbox!) — and it helps you keep track of your reading history too.
  12. Display a timeline to visualize your bibliography
    Not a feature you’ll use everyday, but a neat one nonetheless: Zotero can display your library, or portions of it, on a timeline. Select a group of references, a tag, or a collection and click ‘Create timeline’ (in the Gear menu). This gives you an overview of the items in time. Now you have to ask yourself: is the recency bias due to your reading habits or is it really true that most of the research was done in the last twenty years? (Probably a bit of both.)

Questions or suggestions? Leave a comment.

48 thoughts on “12 must know Zotero tips and techniques”

  1. In regard to PDFs, I am interested in your comments on the best way to handle the following scenarios in Zotero.
    a) metadata discovered on web, PDF found elsewhere
    b) metadata and PDF found at same URL.
    c) website with overview of document and various links to components of document (PDFs of chapters, appendices, etc).
    d) versional PDFs (that the authors don’t recognise as versions) — i.e. Documents that are dated, which are intermittently updated, but thats actual file name is the same as the original.

  2. Simon,

    for (a) I would use the first tip. For (b), I’m assuming you mean that the metadata is not ‘grabbable’ by Zotero; in that case you’d have to add it by hand (or try Google Scholar to find it in grabbable format somewhere else), after which you can drag the PDF onto it as in (a).
    For c), simply save a snapshot of the overview and then attach the PDFs. In this case it pays off to rename them (00-contents, 01-chapter1, …, 11-appendix) so that they will be neatly ordered in Zotero.
    For (d), attach all versions and take note of the version number either in the file name or in the note field available in the right pane when the file is selected. Or if you intend to cite the different versions, make duplicates and provide the dates of the versions to keep them apart.

  3. Mark,

    Tried the first tip and Zotero created an attachment that was stored on disk (expected). The import however did not fill the source of the file into the URL field of the reference (unexpected)and there is no way of dragging-and-dropping it, or cutting-and-pasting the link attached to the PDF attachment into this field – You need to go back to the original site and find the URL again and extract it from the browser.

    For my option b) above, I was alluding to sites where the metadata and PDF are on the same page. Is their a way of getting the metadata stored and PDF attached, with the URL to the PDF stored in the URL field of the item – with just one button or keystroke.

    For my option c) above, by attaching multiple PDFs this creates a virtual library but how do you present this in a bibliography? My references need to provide both functions – a reference for me and a citation for my clients/readers.

  4. Simon,

    Re: a) — good point about the URL, it would make sense if Zotero saved it in this case. This is something that should be suggested in the Zotero forums. In fact, I just did it.
    Re: b), Zotero uses ‘translators’ to grab metadata from sites. Every site needs its own custom-built translator, so only if the sites you’re alluding to are very common it would pay off to develop one (see scaffold).
    Re c), as a rule, you need separate items for separate citations. In that case something like ‘book section’ comes closest to what you describe, and you could quickly generate items for all sections using the duplicating strategy described in tip #2. First add the containing item, then duplicate it once, make the duplicate into a book section, and specify that it is related to the container. If you now duplicate this duplicate, all of them will be conveniently linked to the container item.

    In short, there are no automated solutions for b) and c) due to the fact there is no generic way for Zotero to sniff out bibliographic details, since every site is structured differently. In the future, some cb2bib implementation may help.

  5. Keeping Zotero on a portable drive may be handy, but access the the database (many read/write actions) are slower than an ordinary hard drive. Also, the life-time of your portable drive might be shorter as a consequence… so as everywhere: make regular backup copies.

  6. Anice, the newest version of Zotero supports synchronization, so I suppose the portable option is not so urgently needed anymore (except for students in public libraries perhaps). Synchronization also obviates the need for making manual backups.

    I don’t think the lifetime of the drive would be affected though — writing to solid state memory involves no mechanical parts so that shouldn’t be a problem.

  7. i need to know in zotero how to search for articals in folders not in the entire library. if the tool is available i would love to know . thank you

  8. You can simply select a folder and then use the quicksearch input — it will limit itself to stuff in the selected collection. Alternatively you can select one or more collections in the Advance search window.

  9. “Item 6. Press Ctrl to find out in which collections an item is”

    I could not figure out the steps in control method.

    In my large Z database I am trying to identify the collection name in which I saved several web pages. i am able to 1) do advance search based on title 2) that brings up the items. But i could not figure out in which collection or subcollection they are located.

    I am using Zotero v 2.0.3.

    Your support will be highly appreciated.

  10. @Naser: This won’t work directly from the advanced search window. If you double click the item retrieved using advance search, this brings you to the item in your library. Close the advanced search window and while the item is selected in ‘My Library’, hit control on your keyboard. Also note that you can sort your items by date added — helps to find the most recent additions.

  11. Thanks Mark.
    1) I have double clicked on the found item; it took me to My Library with the item dimly highlighted; pressed control button but nothing displayed 2)I closed the adv search window 3) returned to My Library 4) Selected the item found; pressed control button. Nothing displayed.

    It seems Control button is not working in my case! Could we troubleshoot this?


  12. Naser, if on pressing the Control button none of your collections on the left is highlighted in yellow, this means the item is not in any collection. Is it possible you didn’t place it in any collection?

  13. Mark – I have just tested this Control procedure with an item stored in a known sub-collection. Nop – nothing happening to the collections in left pane.

  14. Are you on Windows, Mac, or Linux? How about the instructions here? In particular, if you’re on Mac, it’s going to be the ‘Option’ key instead of ‘Control’.

    If that still doesn’t work I suppose the Zotero forums are a better place to ask. There, the Zotero developers can help out with bug reports.


  15. Windows. I browsed Zotero forum – but interacted with you as it seemed more organised and clearer.
    Thanks anyway.

  16. I’m trying to an essay in an edited collection of essays. Item type “Book Section” has no space for the name of the editor of the collection. Can anyone help?

  17. Thank you Mark for the useful tips. I suggest Zotero users to install these two plugins, too:

    1) ZoteRename: some nice tuning of Zotero. E.g. automatically collapsing search results to entry titles, automatically renaming attachment files, adding the option of editing file names, …
    2) Zotero Scholar Citations: uses google scholar to save number of citations in “Call Number” field (they couldn’t find a better field!)


  18. One tip – after you index the files, you need to change the pulldown menu on the search bar to “everything” instead of the default “title, creator, year” or else it won’t search the full text even though you indexed it

  19. For those looking for free cloud storage to sync with Zotero, CloudMe is a popular choice. 3 GB free to start with and up to an additional 16 GB by referring friends.

    “As CloudMe has not got the unpleasant file limit of 1000 items per directory unlike most other online storage services it is possible to use CloudMe as file sync server in Zotero. It perfectly works for me for a 1500+ items collection of PDFs with in total 2,7GB.”

  20. The absence of one feature surprises me in Zotero. There is no “batch change” option. So imagine I’ve made a slight mistake on a file that I’ve duplicated, I have to modify all the files individually. Can anyone confirm that there is no way of modifying several files at the same time?

  21. I’m afraid that is true. Batch editing has been promised as a coming feature for a long time, but there is nothing at present with that functionality.

  22. Thanks for these tips! I thought I knew my way around Zotero pretty well, but I learned a thing or two here.

  23. New tip:
    For Zotero Standalone there is profile selector. I can’t work out if there is a command-line option or flag for zotero to start the profile selector, but you can create a new profile very easily.
    Go to the location of the zotero profile folder (for me on linux this is by default ~/.zotero/zotero/) and you should see a ‘profiles.ini’. It hopefully looks like:


    1. Change StartWithLastProfile to equal 0,
    2. Duplicate the [Profile0] section, then change the ‘Profile0’ to ‘Profile1’, the ‘Name’ to something else, and the path to a new folder name (anything you like),
    3. Save profiles.ini and close
    4. Create a new folder to house your profile as specified in profiles.ini,
    5. Start zotero.

    New profiles.ini:


    Name=A new library

  24. On a PC (Ubuntu) substitute Ctrl with Alt for showing which collection an item is categorized under. Useful when searching whole library.

  25. Hi,
    I am using Zotero in mac and I would like to know whether there is a shortcut to mail a pdf from zotero. This is what I do if I have to send a mail. I right-click the pdf and click “show file”, which shows the file location in the finder. I copy the pdf and go to mail and paste it.
    It will be good if there is an option to send mail directly when right-clicking the pdf in zotero.


  26. Hi,
    Has anyone come up with a way to export a tag cloud (of keywords) from a Zotero library/collection?
    It might help me visualize the most frequent themes of my literature review.



  27. Nice tips! Thanks!

    Just a question: Do you know if there is a way to add new databases besides worldCat to Zotero. This is because sometimes Zotero doesn´t get the metadata of some ISBN.

    Thanks a lot for ay comment.


  28. Does anyone know if there is a way to create a checkbox that I can use to say I added it to my annotated bibliographies that are due each week. I was told recently that I reused a reference when we are required to have 5 new ones every week. If I had a checkbox that I could say is for used in a previous week, it would save a lot of time. The tags don’t seem to work for this easily enough.

  29. Can Zotero entries handle reprinted Journal articles listing both the original publication and the reprints in edited books that include the same article? If so please explain. If not, please let me know if there is a plan to expand Zotero to incorporate such a capability.

  30. If you want both in the bibliography, you’d have to cite both, as in all reference management software. Depending on the style you need, you could easily do so by citing the reprint as, say, Oller 2018, adding the original with author suppressed, and adding a prefix like “originally published in”, which would get you something like this: “(Oller 2018; originally published in 2010)”.

  31. does Zotero search out of libraries (on the internet) as Mendeley does before saving into the main application?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *