Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sync your Zotero Library with Dropbox using WebDAV

About a year ago I wrote a post about Dropbox - a free, awesome, cross-platform utility that syncs files across multiple computers and securely backs up your files online. Dropbox is indispensable in my own workflow. I store all my R code, perl scripts, and working manuscripts in my Dropbox. You can also share folders on your computer with other Dropbox users, which makes coauthoring a paper and sharing manuscript files a trivial task. If you're not using it yet, start now.

I've also been using Zotero for some time now to manage my references. What's nice about Zotero over RefMan, EndNote and others, is that it runs inside Firefox, and when you're on a Pubmed or Journal website, you can save a reference and the PDF with a single click within your Zotero library. Zotero also interfaces with both MS Word and OO.o, and uses all the standard EndNote styles for formatting bibliographies.

You can also sync your Zotero library, including all your references, snapshots of the HTML version of all your articles, and all the PDFs using the Zotero servers. This syncs your library to every other computer you're using. This is nice when you're away from the office and need to look at a paper, but you're not on your institution's LAN and journal articles are paywalled. The problem with Zotero is a low storage limit - you only get tiny 100MB storage space for free. Have any more papers or references you want to sync and you have to pay for it.

That's if you use Zotero's servers. You can also sync your library using your own WebDAV server. Go into Zotero's preferences and you'll see this under the sync pane.

Here's where Dropbox comes in handy. You get 2GB for free when you sign up for Dropbox, and you can add tons more space by referring others, filling out surveys, viewing the help pages, etc. I've bumped my free account up to 19GB. Dropbox doesn't support WebDAV by itself, but a 3rd party service, DropDAV, allows you to do this. Just give DropDAV your Dropbox credentials, and you now have your own WebDAV server at https://dav.dropdav.com. Now simply point Zotero to sync with your own DropDAV server rather than Zotero's servers, and you can sync gigabytes of references and PDFs using your Dropbox.

Why not simply move the location of your Zotero library to a folder in your dropbox and forget syncing altogether? I did that for a while, but as long as Firefox is open, Zotero holds your library files open, which means they're not syncing properly. If you have instances of Firefox open on more than one machine you're going to run into trouble. Syncing to Dropbox with DropDAV only touches your Dropbox during a Zotero sync operation.

What you'll need:

1. Dropbox. Sign up for a free 2GB Dropbox account. If you use this special referral link, you'll get an extra 250MB for free. Create a folder in your Dropbox called "zotero."

2. DropDAV. Log in here with your Dropbox credentials and you'll have DropDAV up and running.

3. Firefox + Zotero. First, start using Firefox if you haven't already, then install the Zotero extension.

4. Connect Zotero to DropDAV. Go into Zotero's preferences, sync panel. See the screenshot above to set your Zotero library to sync to your Dropbox via WebDAV using DropDAV.

You're done! Now, go out and start saving/syncing gigabytes of papers!


  1. WebDAV has two limitations if compated to Zotero Storage:
    Files are not available online in your library on the Zotero webpage and you can't share files in groups. If you don't need either of these, a good WebDAV solution like yours is indeed the way to go.

    I also just want to re-iterate how bad of an idea it is to just place your Zotero folder in dropbox. Syncing that doesn't work properly is your best case scenario. Your worst case scenario is a corrupted database that might not be possible to repair. So tempting as it may seem - don't do it.

  2. your webdav solutions works great, but is not free if your zotero library is larger than 2 GB. The dropdav only give you 2 GB of free access.

  3. JD - if you're paying for an upgraded dropbox, I'd recommend creating a separate dropbox account solely for syncing zotero via dropdav.

  4. "Files are not available online in your library on the Zotero webpage". Then what 's the use of file syncing to webdav anyway?

  5. Zotero 2.1.5 gives me this error: "Your WebDAV server must be configured to serve files without extensions and files with .prop extensions in order to work with Zotero."

    Any ideas?

  6. This DropDav is $5 per month, while native Zotero storage is $1.67 per month. I see no added value in much more complicated setup.

  7. @Maxim - you have a good point. When I wrote this post DropDav was free. That's no longer the case, so paying for extra storage on Zotero's servers is a much better buy. I've switched to Mendeley anyhow, and you get 500MB free space there. Not sure what the cost is after the free 500MB quota.

  8. I'm considering making the switch from zotero to Mendeley, as well. Do you sync your Mendeley with Dropbox in any way? I'm looking for a way to integrate Mendeley and GoodReader on my iPad, but am running into issues. I do know there is a Mendeley ipad app, but it has stability issues - crashes constantly. Appreciate any advice!

  9. Here's what I do. In Mendeley you can choose to let it organize your library. So when you add a document, it automatically renames the file to something like author-date-title using metadata from the PDF. And you can choose where Mendeley stores these files, so I put them in a folder in Dropbox, and mount my dropbox as a fileserver in GoodReader. Solved.

  10. Amazing! Thank you so much - so far, this works perfectly.

  11. Thanks for the helpful info. For some reason I am not able to see the screen shot you posted about setting Zotero preferences to sync with DropDAV. Can you post again or provide the directions/settings? Thanks!

  12. I wish I could. I started using Mendeley a while ago and haven't used firefox or mendeley since. Also, I believe Zotero has since upgraded their free storage space beyond 100MB.


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Getting Genetics Done by Stephen Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.