Thanks to the developers, and my experience with using Zotero for a PhD thesis

edited March 15, 2017
A couple of weeks ago I submitted my PhD thesis (in law) at the University of Oslo, after four years of work with Zotero being absolutely integral to my workflow. I therefore want to give my most heartfelt thanks to the Zotero development team for creating a fantastic piece of software that I cannot recommend warmly enough. As a token of my gratitude, I was hoping to submit a donation of sorts (I am already subscribed to the storage service). But I could not find any information about donating -- doesn't Zotero accept donations?

In addition to my thanks to the development team as a whole, I want to give special thanks to @adamsmith, for his work with the OSCOLA style and prompt answers to questions and improvement suggestions that I have posted over the years, and generally tireless forum duty and development work. I hope I run into you sometime so I can buy you a beer!

Also: If anyone here has any questions related to my experiences with using Zotero for such a large project, feel free to reply below. I will try to provide answers. Here is some raw data about my setup and final document, as well as some tips and suggestions for Zotero improvements:
  • Software: Zotero for Firefox and LibreOffice w/plugin. Never used track changes due to the risks of breaking citations.
  • Reference style: OSCOLA
  • Worked using three computers (at least) over 4 years: Win7 desktop at work, Ubuntu desktop at home, Win10 laptop on the go
  • I wrote the entire thing in one file, i.e. without using master and chapter documents. Final document stats: 138 000 words (908 398 characters), 1561 footnotes (of which I guesstimate half or more contain references inserted with Zotero).
  • Never lost citation data, although I had some LibreOffice crashes (tip: save often) and other minor issues. Biggest problem I encountered was a duplication of citation data in plain text. Annoying and random bug, but the mess was easily cleaned up.
  • Zotero was quite slow in inserting citations towards the end. Often it would take a full minute or more for a citation to be inserted. But then suddenly, after 2-3 such waits, a reference would be added in lightning speed, i.e. within seconds. When inserting references was slow, the wait was always while the progress bar was full/"estimating", before it then "reset" and showed a quite rapid progress of updating citations and then inserting the new one (sorry of this makes no sense, I can make a video if it is of interest to the developers).
  • Using the OSCOLA style, which requires numbered back-references probably contributed to the slowness. When I switched footnote numbering to "per chapter", insertion and updating of footnotes was quite quick.
  • A progress bar for the "Refresh" button/function in the LibreOffice plugin would be great. In a large document like my thesis, clicking "Refresh" often appeared to cause no action by the plugin, multiple clicks were necessary. And the refresh process takes quite some time, and the only way to know if the process is still ongoing is to save the file and watch the "this document has been modified" indicator in LibreOffice for automatic changes induced by the "Refresh"-function. This made me quite unsure in the very final stage of whether all footnotes were up to date, and thus whether all OSCOLA back-references were correct.

Thanks again for this great software and the great community that go along with it a -- and which I am delighted to be a part of!
  • Hello,
    And first, congratulations!
    I am also trying to do my PhD using Zotero and LibreOffice, master and chapter documents. I have some issues though - maybe you faced them too?
    The last one is that I have a chapter with tables, and when I try to insert citations in the table, they come as in-text citations whereas all my style is with footnotes. Do you know it could be fixed?
  • Hi @Maguelone

    Though I only had one or two citations to text in a table in my thesis, it worked as expected (footnote, not in-text) using the OSCOLA style for Zotero and LibreOffice (w/plugin). I did not use master/chapter documents, though, so your problem may be related to that.
  • I don't remember the details, but I do recall that citations in tables are a mess as soon as you have more than one in a table.
  • In my experience citations in tables get messy fast with Word or LibreOffice. This problem isn't limited to Zotero but also exists with students who use EndNote.

    I deal with this by, when writing with Zotero field codes active, I do not place _any_ citation within any table element but place them as individual citations below where the table was inserted. Then after removing field codes and saving, I edit the table elements and cells by inserting superscripted characters for the listed citation below the table and then delete the citation list. This works for numbered styles. It becomes tedious for large tables and for tables that exceed one-page in length. Otherwise, for simple tables, the process is quick and easy.

    It would be nice to be able to just use Zotero as usual within document tables but major word processor developers seem to universally treat the content, format, and styles of tables as completely separate items in a document.

    Might this be another argument for the use of text+markup writing tools?
  • Hello, and thank you all for your answers.
    @DWL-SDCA What is "text+markup writing tools"? (I'm French, maybe if someone translated it I would understand...)
  • He was referring to using other software, such as Scrivener or LaTeX to do writing. Personally, for me, I've found that the convenience of Word outweighs its few quirks.
  • I am using Zotero for my 100,000 word PhD thesis (in the History of Art) together with Microsoft WORD (latest edition).
    I echo the thanks for an invaluable piece of software, but have the same concern that there is no progress indicator when Zotero is refreshing all citations: (a) one cannot see whether it is doing it at all and (b) one cannot see when it has finished (c) one cannot stop it once started. A side effect is that it terminates with an error if either Zotero or WORD is (inadvertently) closed while it is still processing.
  • All those things are planned for a future version of the word plugin, thanks!
  • Hi,
    I'm writing my master's thesis in law at the UiO, in English, and have been using Zotero. However, it does not correspond entirely to the library style recommendations, with grouping types of sources together (laws, caselaw, litterature, etc.). How did you solve that in your PhD thesis?
  • Zotero's OSCOLA sorts items by:
    1. Secondary literature
    2. Cases
    3. Bills and Legislation
    4. Treaties

    I think that's in line with the guide. What do you need differently?
  • Oby
    edited April 29, 2021
    @lumint : get in touch with me per e-mail (, and I'll give you a tutorial on Zotero and OSCOLA.
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