Students: Simplify Your Citations

Too often, I hear of students with issues citing their sources while writing an essay. Until recently, I was one of them myself. The vast majority of online services for creating a citation are paid services, and who has the disposable income to spend on that? Certain ones offer free trials, but those are often severely lacking in features, weighed down by ads, or they let you get to the end of your project before they tell you that you can’t export your citations without paying (looking at you, EasyBib). 

Through my painstaking and intricate research (I searched the word “citation” on LibGuides); I was able to identify three different citation services provided to Northwestern students for free: Zotero, Mendeley, and EndNote. Each has different features and functionalities that make it suited to certain types of projects. Of the three, the simplest and most versatile seems to be Zotero, and I highly recommend it. Zotero can be used either right within a web browser or as a standalone downloadable app (for Windows, macOS, or Linux) for offline usage. Northwestern Libraries have created a set of comprehensive guides on how to use Zotero and they’re perfect to help you get started. Zotero is hugely feature-rich and I’m sure that I haven’t finished discovering everything that it  can do, but I wanted to share some of my favorite features here.


Zotero syncs between devices

One of the most frustrating things that I have ever encountered in my entire time as a student is not having access to information that I left on another computer. That feeling of absolute helplessness can be avoided when using Zotero because you can setup your account to sync between all of your devices. Zotero’s sync functionality is amazingly fast: in my experiment, I opened Zotero on two computers, added a new citation on one of them, and it was available on the other within five seconds. Did I mention that this is entirely free? Zotero provides all users with 300MB of cloud storage, but if this isn’t enough, you can upgrade to 2GB, 6GB, or unlimited storage at a very reasonable cost. Unless you’re storing PDFs in your citations (which I’ll talk about below), you probably never have to worry about hitting your 300MB limit. Here’s Northwestern’s LibGuide on how to setup Zotero sync.


Zotero works beautifully with PDFs

Since most of the research done today takes place online (a book, what’s that?), PDFs have become a very popular way to share research reports, studies, and the like. With Zotero, not only can you rest easy knowing that you have access to your citations wherever you go, you can also make it so that you have access to your original source PDFs as well. PDFs can quickly and easily be imported into Zotero and attached to an existing citation, and then that entire PDF will sync along with your citations and will be available through Zotero wherever you happen to be using it.

What if I don’t have an existing citation, you ask? Zotero, of course, has a solution for that. Many PDFs of reports distributed by reputable sources will include metadata within the file indicating the authors, the date of publication, and other information about the source. If Zotero finds this information in a PDF that you import, it will automatically create a citation based on the information that it finds and will attach the PDF to the newly created citation. Here it is in action!


As if all of this wasn’t enough, Zotero also becomes a full-featured search engine for all of your PDFs. By default, when you import a PDF into Zotero, Zotero will index the contents of the PDF. In doing so, all of the text that Zotero finds in the PDF will become quickly searchable, so if you need to find a source that you’ve previously imported that deals with a specific topic, you can simply search for that topic in Zotero’s search bar and it will return all of the citations and PDFs that it finds.


Though it probably won’t have the metadata necessary to support automatically creating citations, you can turn any web page that you find into a PDF using Google Chrome.


Zotero integrates seamlessly with Google Docs

If you’re using Google Chrome and writing your paper in Google Docs (which you probably are), you can take advantage of Zotero’s full suite of productivity-enhancing tools for Google Docs. First, you’ll have to install the Zotero Connector Chrome extension. As you write your paper, you can insert in-text citations for sources that you’ve imported into Zotero through the Zotero menu in Google Docs. If needed, Zotero will automatically prompt you for information such as page or paragraph numbers as required by the citation style you chose.

Though the ability to add in-text citations automatically without worrying about correctness is certainly an enormous productivity boost, my favorite feature of Zotero is what you can do once you’ve finished writing your paper. Once you have inserted all of the in-text citations that you need, you can go to the end of your document, and then select “Add/edit bibliography” from the Zotero menu. Zotero will automatically build a complete, formatted bibliography using only the sources that you have cited in your paper and insert it at the end of your document. No more worrying that you have works in your bibliography that you didn’t end up citing in your paper!