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.