Automate Referencing on iPad with Shortcuts and Zotero

For as long as the iPad has been an excellent device for focused writing, it has never been good for citations and referencing. Referencing on iPad remains the final, stubborn piece of the puzzle to fully untether iOS from the Mac for academic writing. It appears, without exception, the iOS is not yet viewed by developers of referencing software as a fully fledged computing platform. That leaves us with a choice between poorly designed companion apps, or hacking together a solution of our own. I have opted for the latter, by configuring different workflows using Apple’s Shortcuts app and the excellent Zotero API.

What follows is not a primer on referencing, rather it is a means for managing citations on iPad, or even iPhone in a pinch. It assumes some knowledge of Zotero, but that is not difficult to acquire. These tips will be useful regardless of whether you work with both macOS and iOS, or do everything on an iPad. With a little help from iOS Shortcuts, referencing on iPad is that little bit less painful.

Shortcuts Referencing On Ipad

Getting Material into Zotero on iOS

 

Maybe one day we'll get extensible browsers on iOS. Until then, we still have JavaScript bookmarklets. Most of your research is done online anyway, so using the Zotero Bookmarklet in a web browser works just fine. The only real caveat is you want to get your references from a source that Zotero will recognise. That will usually mean a university library, and my EZProxy shortcut can help with that.

Another convenient option is to use the WorldCat Catalog. The WorldCat option has the added virtue of not needing a login, which makes it a hassle free way to get full bibliographic records. I have setup a shortcut that can be invoked from the widget to send a search query to WorldCat, and open the results in Safari. 1 Once you have the bibliographic record up, as long as you are logged in to Zotero, the Bookmarklet will scrape everything you need to populate your library with that record. Download the shortcut here:

WorldCat Web Search Shortcut

Cite as You Write on iOS

There are different ways to come at this. The method you choose will depend on a few variables. The biggest distinction is likely to be whether you work iOS only, or you also operate a Mac. However, there is also a question of how complex your work is, and whether or not you want to automate the process entirely, or you’re happy to manage a few aspects manually. If you are looking for the more comprehensive option, see the section below on rendering a bibliography.

Zotero Shortcuts Referencing On Ipad

 

If you write exclusively on iOS, and all you want to do is insert references from your Zotero library as you write, the following shortcut will do that. Invoke it from the widget to search your collection, and it will place a formatted in-text citation on the clipboard, eg. (Dickens, 1837, p. 21) 2  

Zotero Cite as You Write Shortcut

See below for how to automate the creation of your reference list.

Cite as You Write on iOS for macOS Users

Referecing on iPad

If you are also using a Mac, you only need to know how you intend to process your finished works so you know which cite key style to use. If you intend to use Zotero’s own RTF scanner, your citations must be enclosed by {curly braces}. If you’re a Pandoc user, no doubt you already know you need [square brackets], among other things. 3 You can download a workflow for either here.

Zotero RTF Shortcut

Zotero Pandoc Shortcut

Automate Rendering a Reference List or Bibliography

Depending on the complexity of your needs, this is where it can get tricky. If you're writing anything genuinely long form — a dissertation, thesis, or a book — then this is the last remaining task where it is useful to have access to a Mac, or PC if necessary. That doesn’t mean you need to own one. Workarounds exist to make this possible from an iPad.

The Simple Method

For the most simple version of this, Zotero can produce a bibliography online, but it’s not pretty. Fortunately, Shortcuts can retrieve a formatted reference list from the Zotero API. If you want to use the Cite as You Write shortcut from above, you can retrieve the reference list, or bibliography from the relevant collection with the following shortcut.

Zotero Bibliography Shortcut

Note, these workflows don’t know what references are in your document, there is no way to automate that via Shortcuts. They are by no means perfect, so proof your work carefully.

Run the Zotero RTF Scanner from an iPad (almost)

Should you wish to automate the process completely, you will need access to a desktop to scan your work through the Zotero RTF scanner. The good news about keeping your references in Zotero, being a web service you can make use of on demand computing. You don’t need to maintain your Zotero library in a local database, it remains in the cloud. That means you only need temporary access to a desktop for the sole purpose of running your work through Zotero. 4

Amazon Workstations

If you cannot access a desktop directly, there is always Amazon Workstations. It’s free to set one up, and you’ll only need it briefly. Be careful to choose an option available on the free tier though, or you could be in for an unpleasant surprise when a bill arrives. The iPad app for Amazon Workstations is useable enough for this. You can manage your referencing on iPad with Zotero, then setup a workstation to run the finished project through the scanner.

Portable Apps Zotero

Often on campus it is easy enough to access a desktop, but installing software can be a problem.  For that situation, the unofficial Portable Apps version of Zotero should do the trick.  Install it on a portable drive and run it on demand. To be honest, I like this option more than using AWS.

Beyond Referencing on iPad

Zotero’s Web API with the Shortcuts app is presently ās good as it gets for referencing on iPad. I’m not exaggerating when I say I have tried everything else, nothing comes close where iOS is concerned. From its communal, open source development, to its stance on privacy, Zotero is an antidote to the proprietary systems of giant academic publishers. 5 I cannot speak highly enough of the Zotero service. If you can spring for it, I recommend upgrading the storage option for both the utility, and to support their work. US$20 will buy you 2GB for a year, which is plenty for PDF documents.

For Mac users, Zotero is not the only solution I can recommend. I have started testing the native macOS referencing solution, Bookends, recently. I can tell you, it is impressive. I will post a proper review at some point, but there is a free trial available. Both these solutions, Zotero and Bookends, offer and excellent alternative to EndNote, Mendely, and the other big commercial referencing solutions. But at this point, for academic writing on iOS, Zotero is the best option we have currently. Whether you use these workflows, or shortcuts as they are or adapt them to your needs, I hope you find them useful. If you need any help configuring them, don't be afraid to contact me via one of the methods to your left.

Happy writing.

 

 

  1. If you use an alternate browser, you can change the final action to open the results there.
  2. If you are using footnotes, I have a post in the works to cover that
  3. I have a follow up post that will cover using Pandoc on iOS. It includes a shortcut for extracting citekeys for the Better BibTeX Plugin
  4. Unfortunately, the RTF scanner is a plugin, so it isn’t available online or through the API.  
  5. EndNote once sued Zotero for having the audacity to offer users a means for transferring their data. Mendely is run by similar ghouls.