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Citation Management with Zotero — Organize & Find References

Learn to use Zotero, a free, open-source citation management tool.

On this page:

  • Search Your Library 
  • Create Collections 
  • Label References with Tags 
  • Connect Related Items 

Search Your Library

Quick Search

The search box at the top of the center pane, at the far right edge of the pane, is useful for running simple searches of your library.

Search box in top bar

The drop-down menu lets you select from a few different search options. You can really only search a single word or phrase effectively using Quick Search.

Search box with drop-down options revealed

Advanced Search

Under "Edit," select "Advanced Search."

Edit menu opened with Advanced Search highlighted

In this box, you have much more control over where you search, you can create complex searches (such as a word in the title, plus an author's last name, plus a tag). You can also use the % (percent) sign as a wildcard in Advanced Search.

Advanced search box window

Saving Searches

In Advanced Search, you can save a search, which will then appear as an option in your collections are in the left-hand pane. Click on the saved search name to run it at any time.

Arrow pointing to a saved search folder, which can be identified by the yellow folder icon overlayed with a magnifying glass

Create Collections

Collections are folders in which to organize your references. All your references will always display in the main "My Library" folder, but you can also group them into named collections and subcollections. This is less like the folder organization of your computer and more like creating playlists: My Library is your library of music, and each folder is a playlist you create from items in your library. References can appear in an unlimited number of collections simultaneously.

To add a collection:

  • Click the New Collection icon (a folder with a plus on it) in the left-hand Zotero pane.

    New collection button is a yellow folder with a green plus sign
  • A pop up box will appear asking you to name the collection.
  • If you want this to be a subcollection, drag it into the relevant folder. You can also create subcollections by simply right-clicking the intended parent folder and choosing "New Subcollection."

    Right-click context menu for a collection highlighting option to create a New Subcollection
  • Drag and drop items into your collection/s.

Other useful things to know about collections:

  • If a collection is selected when you add an item to Zotero, the item will automatically be dropped into that collection. If you add something to a collection by mistake, just right click it and select "Remove Item from Collection..." Don't worry, this doesn't delete it from your library.

    Right-click context menu for a reference highlighting Remove Item from Collection
  • Not sure which collections your references are in? Select an item in your library and then hold down the Ctrl, Option, or Alt (Linux) key. The collection or collections that include that reference will be highlighted in yellow.

    Collections containing a specific reference highlighted in yellow

    References that currently aren't in any collection are in the "Unfiled Items" special collection in the left-hand pane.

    Arrow pointing at Unfiled Items Collection
  • Want to move a reference, rather than copy it, from one collection to another? Hold down the Command or Shift key, then drag and drop the item as usual.
  • If you want to delete an entire collection, but not the items in it, right-click the collection folder and choose "Delete Collection."

    Right-click context menu for a collection highlighting Delete Collection

    All your items will still live in your library. Deleting a collection also deletes any subcollections.

Label References with Tags

Tags are descriptive keywords you can add to items in your library. They appear in the Tag Selector box at the bottom of the left-hand Zotero pane. Clicking on one will only show you references with that tag.

Automatic Tags

Zotero sometimes adds tags automatically, pulling in data like subject headings when you import a reference from a database. To avoid this, go to Preferences → General tab and uncheck the box for "Automatically tag items with keywords and subject headings."

Preferences option to not import tags automatically

Automatic tags can be hidden by opening the Tag Selector's Actions menu (the multi-colored dots in the bottom right of the box) and unchecking "Show Automatic." You can also delete existing automatic tags by choosing that option in the same menu.

Menu showing how to show or hide automatic tags in the tag selector

Manual Tags

To tag a reference, select it in the center pane and click on the "Tags" tab in the right-hand pane.

Tags tab in the reference details menu in the right-hand pane

Click "Add" and type your tag. If you start typing and there's already a tag in your collection similar to that, it will show up as a suggestion.

Add button in the Tags tab allows you to add new tags

To tag anything else (a file, link, or note, for example), select it in the center pane. Just as with a normal reference, look to the right-hand pane but near the bottom.

Where to find the tag option for non parent items

An easier way to add tags, so you don't have to remember the ones you've already created, is to select something in the center column and drag it onto the tag in the Tag Selector. This works for anything in your library.

Manage Tags

To remove tags, select the tagged item and click the minus sign next to the tag in the right-hand pane.

Use minus sign to remove tags

To rename or delete tags from your library, look at the tag box at the bottom of the left-hand pane. Right-click the tag you want to modify.

Right-click context menu to delete a tag in the tag selector

To merge tags, for example because you accidentally created both "teenagers" and "teenager," simply rename one to match the other. 

Searching Using Tags

You can search for items using tags in the search box at the top of the center pane, in the "Advanced Search" under the "Edit" menu, or by simply clicking on a tag in the Tag Selector box.

You can search your existing tags using the search box at the bottom of the tag box, too. Keep in mind that selecting more than one tag in that box is an AND search: an item must have ALL of the tags in order to appear in the center pane.

Coloring Your Tags

You can assign colors to up to nine of your tags, which will change both the color of the tag text and add a colored box next to tagged items.

Reference showing tab with associated color

Colored tags take priority in the Tag Selector box and appear at the top of the tag list for an item.

Tag selector showing how tags with colors show up at the top

Right-click a tag in the Tag Selector to add or remove a color.

Right-click context menu to assign a color to a tag

Connect Related Items

You can create a relationship between items in your library using the Related feature.

To do this:

  1. Select one of your references in the center pane.
  2. In the right-hand pane, choose the "Related" tab and click "Add."
    Related tab in the right-hand details pane
  3. Select one or more items from your library and click "OK."

    Arrow showing selection of a reference to relate

Note that when you relate item A to B, B will be automatically related to A. But relations are not transitive: relating A to B, and B to C, will not automatically relate A to C.

If you find relating items helpful, you may want to install the plugin Zutilo, which allows you to select several references in the center pane, right click, and relate them all at the same time.