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While Zotero stores all data locally on your computer by default, Zotero's sync functionality allows you to access your Zotero library on any computer with internet access. Zotero syncing has two parts: data syncing and file syncing.
Data syncing merges library items, notes, links, tags, etc.—everything except attachment files—between your local computer and the Zotero servers, allowing you to work with your data from any computer with Zotero installed. It also allows you to view your library online on zotero.org. Data syncing is free, has no storage limit, and can be used without file syncing.
The first step to syncing your Zotero library is to create a Zotero account (which is also used for the Zotero Forums). Then, open Zotero's Sync preferences tab and enter your login information in the Zotero Sync Server section. By default, Zotero will sync your data with the server whenever changes are made. To disable automatic syncing, uncheck the “Sync automatically” checkbox in this section.
In addition to automatic syncing, you can sync manually at any time by clicking the “Sync with Zotero Server” button on the right-hand side of the Zotero toolbar.
By default, Zotero will merge your local Zotero library with your library on zotero.org—any changes you make in one place will be applied to the other and on all other synced computers. If an item has changed in multiple places between syncs, you'll receive a conflict resolution dialog asking which version you'd like to keep. In the rare case that you want to completely overwrite your server library with the contents of your local library or vice versa, you can use the Sync Reset Options.
Data syncing syncs library items, but doesn't sync attached files (PDFs, audio and video files, images, etc.). To sync these files, you can set up file syncing to accompany data syncing, using either Zotero File Storage or WebDAV.
Zotero File Storage
Zotero File Storage is the recommended file sync option and has several advantages over WebDAV syncing, including syncing of files in group libraries, web-based access to PDFs and other attachments, easier setup, guaranteed compatibility, and improved upload performance for certain files. Each Zotero user is given 300 MB of free Zotero File Storage for attached files, with larger storage plans available for purchase.
See the Zotero File Storage documentation for more information.
WebDAV is a standard protocol for transferring files over the web, and it can be used to sync files in your personal library. (Group libraries cannot currently use WebDAV.) Your employer or research institution may be able to provide WebDAV storage. Otherwise, there are many third-party options, both free and paid (see WebDAV providers known to work with Zotero).
Once you have your WebDAV account info, enter the URL provided by the service, your username, and your password in the Sync preferences tab. Be sure to select 'http' or 'https' as appropriate — if you're not sure, try 'https' first. After entering the information, click “Verify Server”. If Zotero successfully verifies the WebDAV account, you're all set to use file syncing via WebDAV.
Zotero file sync should work with any correctly functioning WebDAV server. Zotero developers cannot provide support for third-party WebDAV servers.
Linked File Attachments
You can also use sync Zotero files across computers using linked files. Rather than attaching stored copies of files to Zotero items, you can attach links to files stored in a cloud-sync folder, such as Dropbox or Google Drive. When using linked attachments, you should set up Zotero's Linked Attachment Base Directory feature so that Zotero can find your files on each computer, even if the path to the cloud-sync folder differs. The Zotfile plugin can make managing linked attachments easier by automatically moving attachment files to a designated folder as you import them.
See Alternative Syncing Solutions for more details.
Syncing In Practice
If Zotero is set to sync automatically, changes will be synced within a few seconds of being made. Otherwise, you can start a manual sync by clicking the sync button on the right-hand side of the Zotero toolbar.
If you enter the same login information into the Sync preferences on multiple computers, Zotero will sync everything transparently. Your attention should only be needed if the same item or file is edited in two different places before Zotero has a chance to sync them. In this instance, you will be presented with a conflict resolution window, where you can decide which changes to accept.
If you sync from only one computer, you can still view your online library at zotero.org from any computer. Should something happen to your computer or should you want to start using Zotero on another computer, simply set up your account info on the new computer. Zotero will pull down your entire library from the server.
Alternative Syncing Solutions
If, for whatever reason, you are unable to use Zotero's syncing features, you can transfer your Zotero data using another method, such as by using a cloud storage service (Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, etc.), a network folder, or a tool such as rsync, but there are significant risks and limitations to this approach.
Storing the Zotero data directory directly in a cloud storage folder is extremely likely to corrupt your Zotero database and should not be done. (The same is true of most database-backed programs.)
You can, however, store just the
storage subdirectory of the Zotero data directory, as explained below. You can also manually copy your entire data directory to a synced folder after closing Zotero on one computer and then restore it — again with Zotero closed — on another computer, as if you were performing a backup and restore of your data.
If you want to use an external file-sync service to sync just your Zotero attachment files, you have several options:
- The easiest method is to use linked files, rather than stored copies of files, and to store your attachment files in the synced folder. The ZotFile plugin can make this simple by automatically moving attachment files to a designated folder as you import them. You should also set up Zotero's Linked Attachment Base Directory feature so that Zotero can find your files on each computer, even if the path to the cloud storage folder differs.
- You can also use a symbolic link to sync only the
storagedirectory from your Zotero data directory using the external sync service. This will sync your attachment files without touching the main Zotero SQLite database.
- Finally, you can set the entire data directory inside Dropbox (or similar) and then use selective sync options to disable syncing for the data directory and then enable syncing of the 'storage' subdirectory. If you set up this option incorrectly, you run great risk of losing data. The forums contain many threads about the problems that users have faced with Dropbox- or Google Drive–based setups.