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zotero for academic research - badri

How to Use Zotero for Academic Research?

When I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2022, I was already well-versed with Zotero as a tool for academic citation. But that isn’t a good start for a blog, is it? When I was romancing the idea of pursuing a PhD, I began watching YouTube blogs of PhD students—to get a sense of what it is like doing a PhD and what happens in it.

In one such video, the YouTuber spoke of valuable tools for a PhD student. They introduced me to Zotero, Mendeley, Evernote, Notion, ResearchRabbit, and Grammarly applications. I have come to like some, while I have grown out of like with time. Zotero is one such app that has continued to stay along.

What is Zotero—and what does it do?

Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, open-source referencing tool that helps you manage all your references, articles, and readings in one application. It allows academics/researchers to extract citation information from raw pdf files. Zotero also helps arrange the articles thematically and then cite them in your Word documents. It further syncs your documents onto a cloud server, allowing you to access your files on the web—wherever you go.

Zotero enables you to merge duplicate files and retain the same file in multiple thematic categories. It can directly save references from the web to your application—with just a click on the Zotero browser extension. It also allows you to add your publications in a separate section. Furthermore, it allows you to navigate multiple citation styles with just one click. Even as you navigate through a tardy intext citation, you can cite the same in other formats (such as footnotes and endnotes) without hassle.

How do we manage files?

In this blog, I will tell you how to work with the Zotero application for your everyday academic needs. To download Zotero, head to their website and install the application. On their homepage, you should ideally see a download button.

Once you have installed the application onto your Mac/Windows/Linux system, you need to signup for the application. While the signup requirement is not mandatory, I recommend you sign up, as it will allow you to store your files on the cloud and access them later through a web browser. You must also download the Zotero Connector (an extension/plugin for the browser), a Microsoft Word AddIn and a Google Docs Plugin.

Once you signup, you will see a workspace like this:

zotero-research-adarsh badri

This is my workspace on Zotero. It includes the kinds of books I have saved for my research. In the left corner, you will find a section titled my library. It consists of the collections or the list of topics I deal with—and the readings they contain. You may see that they are numbered from -1 to 12. I did not really begin numbering them from -1, but from 1, according to the importance I ascribed to these collections in my research.

However, as I started working on my synopsis and research paper, I added the -1 and 0 to appear on top. You may use this technique as you navigate through this space. Further, each collection contains subcollections, which store files: such as books and articles. Here is a look at how I have arranged them meticulously:

zotero-research-adarsh badri

In the picture above, you can see that I have two to three subsections for each section. For instance, the section “Research Methods” consists of three subsections: “Methods – Articles”, “Methods/Writing – Books”, and “Writing – Articles”. Similarly, I have tried to divide each section into two/three subsections with specific titles, as mentioned in the image above. This technique will allow you to navigate your articles easily—over the years. Academic life is made a lot simpler with this application.

How do we upload files on Zotero?

There are three main ways of adding a reference on Zotero:

  1. Manually add the references
  2. Add the references using an identifier
  3. Add them using the Zotero Connector

You have a pdf of an article that you want to cite. So, you upload the pdf file directly onto the application or add the reference using an identifier (in the form of a DOI or ISBN). Along with these two methods, you can also click on the browser extension of Zotero (known as Zotero Connector) on any webpage you want to add, which would ideally save the file for you on Zotero.

Refer to the image below for the browser extension version of saving a document on Zotero:

zotero-research-adarsh badri

The image above shows us the tab that appears while saving the file in Zotero via a web browser extension. It saves the file in the last opened collection/section of the Zotero workspace by default. However, you can change where you want to save the file on the browser. Once you have uploaded a raw pdf file onto your Zotero application, it automatically extracts all the essential details from the pdf. It generates citation information for you without you having to do anything. Cool, isn’t it? I think so too!

zotero-research-adarsh badri

If Zotero cannot read raw pdf files for information, or if the pdf does not contain a DOI, you can also input all information manually. It also allows you to add DOI for a file so that it generates all the information for you. For instance, here I have a raw file of Ian Talbot’s Pakistan: A Modern History, which Zotero could not extract the information from. So, I left-clicked on the file, which opened a tab with several options, including “creating a parent item”. In the picture above, you see the image of the space for creating a parent item.

It would be best to have one of this information: DOI, ISBN, PMID, etc. There are two ways to get them: first, through a basic Google search, and second, by manually opening the file and navigating the ISBN information page. The moment you get hold of this information, you need to add the information in the tab shown above. It’s that simple.

How do you cite using Zotero?

One of the main tasks of Zotero is referencing and citation. It is a citation-management application. Zotero makes citations so simple that you don’t want to stop once you get the hang of it. It allows you to cite multiple authors without having to add all of the information by yourself manually.

I will illustrate this here. For instance, if I want to add a citation here on this document, I hover over the word extension of the application.

zotero-research-adarsh badri

The extension looks as depicted in the image above in the word file. You need to add first, and click on the “add/edit citation” option. It will open a new set of “document preferences” options, as shown in the image below.

zotero-research-adarsh badri

Zotero contains over 10,000 distinct citation styles, which you may navigate and choose as per your preferences. I choose the Chicago Manual of Style’s author-date style for this example. However, you can always change the citations via the “document preferences” tab. Please use this to the fullest. It will save tons of time for academics to navigate through myriad citation styles for journals daily.

After setting your citation style in the “document preferences”, you can cite the articles per your requirements. Now, when you click on add/edit citation, a {Citation} element pops up along with a red coloured tab for you to type the author, book/article title.

zotero-research-adarsh badri

Once you click on the article you want to cite, Zotero will cite the following article per your preferences—even including the pages (if you ask it to). It is an easy-to-use application for this reason. It helps you navigate through millions of articles on an everyday basis. Once you have generated all the citations in your text, you can also click on the “Add/Edit Bibliography” section to create a bibliography based on the citation style you initially input. These features make this application compelling for students and academics to write assignments and articles and share them.

I want to caveat something here. While navigating these tabs alone may seem easy, it is a cumbersome process. It takes time to get the hang of the application, just as you would when buying a new phone. You will be amazed at the kinds of work Zotero does for you when you begin to use the application to its fullest.

Tell me in the comments below if you found this blog useful 🙂 Also, tell me if you have already used the application and if you have other recommendations.

Key Links Related to Zotero


This website and the newsletter (fuzzy notes) have been a labour of love. While they are free to access (and will continue to be free), they are not free to create. I spend significant time researching, writing, and proofing every article I publish here, apart from all the logistical aspects of buying and managing the domain and hosting plans. Each article is written meticulously to help fellow readers (such as yourself) get the best knowledge, which is also witty and articulate in this outlook. You may reach out to me at [email protected] (and tell me what you liked about the essay you may have just read or if you want me to write on anything you wish to read). If you have benefitted from reading articles on my website and the newsletter, consider buying me a coffee (as a token of love and appreciation ♥). If you cannot do so now, it’s okay! (understandably, each of us has our problems to deal with every day.) You can still do something else: share the article with someone who may like it.



10 thoughts on “How to Use Zotero for Academic Research?”

    1. Yes, part of the reason I began working on this draft was the sheer inability of my peers to use Zotero like apps for research. Although it might get difficult initially to start with these tools, it helps in the long run.

  1. Hi Adarsh! Tbh this is a gem of a blog for students and scholars out there. Also, any upcoming posts on SAS, R and SPSS for statistical analysis in social sciences? Those will be very helpful!!

    1. Hello Alankrita,

      Many thanks for checking my blog out 🙂
      And I will definitely keep writing more and interesting articles over the months and years.
      However, unfortunately, I am not trained in quantitative methodologies and statistical tools (like SPSS, R, SAS), so I won’t be able to write much about them. But, I hope to compile a list of courses/blogs/YouTube sources to check out on quantitative methods. Many thanks for this suggestion 🙂

      Kind Regards,
      Adarsh

    1. Hi Gaurav, I am really glad that you found it useful. Share it across with your friends and peers, who may find it useful. Happy reading 🙂

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