Use Dropbox to Sync and Store Your Zotero Database

DropboxWe’ve mentioned Dropbox here at DiYiT before. In fact, back in our very first post Philip declared it to be “an academic’s best friend.” If you missed that post and aren’t familiar with Dropbox, you should definitely check it out. In a nutshell, Dropbox allows you to sync folders between two or more computers. You can also access the files in your Dropbox folders via the web at The service effectively eliminates version control issues while also providing a convenient offsite backup for your files. For this post I want to describe how Dropbox has improved my research workflow by housing my Zotero database.

If you aren’t familiar with Zotero, unfortunately we don’t have a previous post to help you. At some point soon, I plan to write up a full review describing the many benefits of this free, open-source research organization and citation system produced by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. For now, you’ll need to check out their page to learn about this wildly useful add-on for Firefox. And although it has a certain cart-before-the-horse feel to it, I’m going to forge ahead with this current post about how Dropbox can improve upon the typical Zotero user experience. Those of you who use Zotero might benefit from it. And those of you who don’t will undoubtedly be switching over now that you’ve heard of it. So there’s really no downside here.

ZoteroZotero allows you to collect and organize bibliographic information, articles, files, and web pages along with any notes and tags you might apply to those bits of research. For any significant research project, all that can amount to a substantial pile of data. The Zotero database for my dissertation contains all of my research notes, PDF versions of any article I’ve downloaded, a number of full-text books in PDF or text format from Google Books, and a the occasional image file from my archival research. In all it currently totals about a gigabyte (1 GB) of data. Since this repository is vital to my dissertation, I need it to be accessible in a variety of situations and I need it to be safely backed up. Dropbox helps with both of those needs.

My previous method for meeting these two needs was to rely on a portable external hard drive. Since you can tell Zotero where on the computer to find its database, I would simply point the software to a specified folder on the external drive. When I needed to write, take notes, or gather research away from home on my netbook, the drive came along for the ride. With a portable version of Firefox on the drive itself, I could even access my data from any other PC I encountered. And by periodically copying the Zotero folder from the portable drive onto one of my other hard disks, I could breathe a bit easier knowing that a sudden hard drive failure would not derail my entire academic career.

Hard Drive in a Box

Here’s a photo of my trusty portable hard drive. Before I bought my own microfilm reader, I’d carry the drive and a few rolls of microfilm to the library for long research sessions. Somehow even next to the microfilm the hard drive looks like an outdated piece of technology.

Despite meeting my needs, this system had plenty of obvious flaws. Most of you probably spotted them while you read that last paragraph. You might have even unconsciously spoken aloud, “Really?” when you read that I actually carried around a separate hard drive when I needed access to my research. Or if you are security conscious, you might have noted that having two copies of one’s data on different hard drives in the same house doesn’t really constitute a valid backup. A house fire, flood, or cat burglar could have easily undermined my beautiful system.

The fine folks at the Center for History and New Media have anticipated all of these needs and built solutions to them right into the software. With a free Zotero account you can upload your data and sync it with any of your computers. However, this free option only comes with 100MB of space. If, like me, you’ve got many files attached to your records, 100MB simply won’t cut it. Of course, more space is available for purchase. Their price scale ranges from $20 per year for 1GB of space to $60 per year for 5 GB and then gradually on up to $240 for 25 GB.

With a Dropbox account, on the other hand, you start with 2 GB free storage space. And you can earn up to 6 more gigs of free space by recommending the service to others. If that doesn’t meet your needs, a 50 GB account runs $9.99 per month or $99 per year and a 100 GB account costs $19.99 per month or $199 per year.

When you install Dropbox, the program will create a Dropbox folder in your My Documents folder (in Windows) or your user folder list (on a Mac). In order back up a new Zotero database with Dropbox you simply need to open Firefox, launch the Zotero add-on and open the Zotero preferences menu. Under the “Advanced” tab you’ll see the option to set a custom Data Directory Location. Click on the “choose” button (shown below) and navigate over to the Dropbox folder. Save the settings and you are ready to begin collecting sources and data.

Zotero directory choice

If you already have a Zotero database, transferring your existing data is just as easy. You simply need to locate the current Zotero folder. To find it, click the “Show Data Directory” button on the “Advanced” tab of the Zotero preferences. A window will open showing you the contents of the Zotero folder. Simply navigate “up” a level so that you can copy the whole “Zotero” folder. Once you’ve copied the folder, navigate over to your Dropbox folder in paste it there. You can then direct Zotero to the newly placed data folder. Now each time you make a change to your Zotero database it will automatically update in your Dropbox account.

If you plan to use the same database on two computers all you have left to do is install Dropbox on the other machine and direct that computer’s version of Zotero to the “zotero” folder in your Dropbox folder.

As with all such jury-rigged solutions, there is one caveat. It’s best not to alter both versions at the same time. In practice this means not running Firefox on both of the computers at the same time since the Zotero files are active and updating when you have Firefox open. When I first started using this system I had a few instances where I left my home PC running with Firefox open while I went to campus and used my netbook. The result was a small set of conflicted files in my Zotero folder. You can see them listed in the screenshot below.

Dropbox conflicts

The Zotero folder above shows conflicts between the files on my two computers. (Fenway and Doofenshmirtz are the names of those computers. That’s why those names appear in the conflicted file names.)

Two simple practices help me avoid these conflicts. First, I try to shut down or at least hibernate my home PC when I’m not there. Obviously this is a good practice for various other reasons. And second, I leave my netbook’s version of Zotero set to the default local folder. Only when I actually want to access my dissertation research do I point it toward the Zotero database held in the Dropbox folder. It is an extra step, yes. But it keeps me from inadvertently causing data conflicts.

I hope this trick helps some of you out there back up and sync your research, citations, and notes. Leave a comment below if you’ve got thoughts on this setup or maybe an even better system.

3 responses to “Use Dropbox to Sync and Store Your Zotero Database

  1. You understate the issues that can arise from having FF open in two locations simultaneously. It can completely and irretrievably corrupt your database. One instance can be enough to do that. I really don’t understand why anyone would take that type of risk with his/her data.
    If Zotero data storage is too expensive for your taste, there are a whole range of WebDav options, that allow secure data syncing with Zotero
    including mydisk, jungledisk, icloud etc. – with some tweaking you can even use dropbox as a webDav server (google for instructions).

    Obviously, do what you feel is the best solution for you, but if your database ends up hopelessly corrupted because you were careless once, don’t say you werent warned…

    • I second Adam’s caution. There is no good reason to do this: Zotero will store an unlimited number of notes, links, and database entries on their servers for free. It is only file attachments, like PDFs and web snapshots, that count against the quota: many people won’t even have those.

      I had never even heard of WebDAV, but Zotero uses it to save just the attachments to a separate server. Adding it was easier than setting up Zotero syncing by itself. In addition to the sites Adam names, many universities will offer free server space to students and faculty. Contact your reference librarian or IT people!

  2. Pingback: Use Dropbox to Turn Microsoft’s Autorecover Feature into an Autosave Feature to Avoid Losing Work | DIY Ivory Tower

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