18 August 2020


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How to Use Zotero with Scrivener – Part 1 – The Simple Method

By Catherine Pope

August 18, 2020

Posted in Scrivener

I love showing people how to use Zotero and Scrivener. Their faces light up when they realise how much easier life is going to be. But then there’s always a question … do Zotero and Scrivener work together? Those same faces fall when I answer, “no, not really”. We all like to imagine a perfect universe where all our favourite apps cooperate seamlessly. While this is unlikely to ever happen, there are a couple of workarounds in this case – one of them simple, the other really rather complicated.

In this post, I’ll explain the simplest method of using Zotero with Scrivener. Here, you’ll create placeholders for your citations in Scrivener as you write, then let Zotero add them in afterwards.

Adding Citation Placeholders in Scrivener

As you write in Scrivener, you add placeholders for your citations in the following format: {author, year, pages}  – yes, those are squiggly brackets.

Here are a few examples:

{Bodenheimer, 1988, 23}
{Landow, 1979, 87}
{Gribble, 1929, 12-14}

This is a bit fiddly, as either you need a very good memory or you’ll be stopping to look up references as you write. Alternatively, you could prepare them in advance and keep them in a Project Note. Using the split screen feature in Scrivener, it’s then easy to copy and paste them into your document.

A neater solution is to install the RTF Scan style for Zotero.

1) Go to the Zotero Style Repository
2) Search for RTF Scan
3) Click to download it
4) Click to install it (make sure Zotero is open)
5) Set it as your default format in the Export tab under Preferences

Now when you want to create a placeholder, find and select the item in your Zotero library, copy it using Ctrl+Shift+c, then paste into Scrivener. You’ll get exactly the right format and details.

To include a bibliography, simply add the placeholder {bibliography} where you want it to appear.

When you’ve finished, export your document as a RTF (Rich Text Format) file (in Windows you can use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Shift+x, on a Mac it’s Shift+Cmd+e).

Replacing Your Placeholders in Zotero

Next open Zotero. Click Preferences, then choose RTF Scan. Select the RTF document you just exported from Scrivener and also specify where you want the finished document to be saved.

RTF Scan file in Zotero

Zotero displays any citations it has detected. If one is incorrect, click on the icon to the right and select the correct publication from your Library.

Verify cited items in Zotero RTF Scan

Finally, choose the formatting style your require and Zotero scans through and replaces your placeholders with citations in a new version of the document. Lovely!

Here’s a very short video demo:

A Few Caveats

Unfortunately, this document won’t be linked to your Zotero Library, so you’d have to manually add or edit further citations. Also, the RTF Scan is very unforgiving of typos – you have to get your author names absolutely right otherwise it won’t recognise them. Another problem is that it can’t differentiate between multiple publications by the same author in the same year.

Nevertheless, this is a quick solution for simpler documents where you don’t have too many citations. It would be marvellous if Scrivener and Zotero did talk to each other properly, but they’re still the best tools, I think, for writing and referencing.

In my next post I’ll show you a more complicated method that overcomes these limitations but requires a lot more patience.

Catherine Pope

About the author

Since completing her PhD in 2014, Catherine has supported thousands of researchers through to the finish line. Having enjoyed a varied career as a web developer, lecturer, and coach, Catherine now shares her skills and knowledge through PhD Progress.

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