Papers for papers

Like everyone else, I download quite a few journal articles from current issues or from the Jstor archive. Question: just how do you keep the heaps of PDFs organized? What do you use to search across them?

Well, I’ve belated just discovered Papers (Mac OSX only, I’m afraid), a sort of iTunes for your PDFs. It has been around for over two years — there’s an old explanatory poster here — and it knocks spots off the various previous solutions I’ve tried. Here are some high points:

  • You fire up Papers and there in its designated folder is your library of PDFs, neatly listed and sorted. Papers uses the Spotlight engine to do very fast searches. You can then click on items to read them from within Papers (and you can write notes too). And you can open different papers in different tabs, rather than have a clutter of windows.
  • That’s very pretty, but Papers really comes into its own when e.g. you want to search and download papers e.g. from Jstor. You can search Jstor from within Papers (early releases of the program only knew about science databases: being able to work with a wider set of sources is the big new feature added in later versions). You can just store the found paper details for later: but click on the found title you want to fetch, and you get to the paper’s Jstor download page. Download the paper, and it arrives in your library, with the author/title/year/journal etc. metadata all neatly listed — and Papers systematically changes the title of the PDF file itself, from Jstor’s to your preferred naming system. (I use author, date, first five words of title). So looking in the library folder itself from the Finder, you see a neatly and usefully named set of files.
  • How to you move some previously obtained paper into the library? Or a paper newly downloaded from a current journal issue? No problem, drop the paper onto the Papers icon in the dock, and it will appear in the Library. If it is recent with a DOI identifier, again Papers extracts the metadata and renames the file according to your system. Otherwise you give Papers e.g. the author name and a word or two from the title, and Papers asks Google scholar to find a match: click on the match, and — whoosh! — the paper is neatly filed and renamed again.
  • With a library full of papers you can then sort them in various ways, and make various “collections” (smart ones too, if you want). As I said, you can of course search your library from within Papers. And because the PDF library remains just that (i.e. the files aren’t messed about with) you can inspect it from e.g. DevonThink if you want to do some much fancier “intelligent” searches.
  • The thing is a joy to use, as I’m discovering. You can of course export BibTex and other citation data if you want. And the interface is really neat. It was won an award for being quintessentially Mac — which it is, to the point that they don’t bother to provide a manual apart from a short getting-started video. Just remember to control-click on any likely-looking button or sidebar item, and you’ll get a drop down menu of options.
  • And oh, if you really want, you can sync a collection of your papers to Papers for the iPhone or iPod Touch, to read some PDFs on the move.

All in all, I’m a newly converted enthusiast. Terrific.

12 thoughts on “Papers for papers”

  1. I just use Google desktop. no sorting, renaming or anything like that. just save them in some folder. When you need something, just use Google desktop to search what you are looking, that is all.

  2. And you can stash your mp3 downloads in a folder and leave it at that: a heck of a lot more convenient to use iTunes though!

  3. Ole Thomassen Hjortland

    I’m converted.

    Also, I used google desktop back in my PC days, but I seem to remember that it was a memory drain. Perhaps they improved it, but spotlight struck me as faster and more reliable.

  4. Keith Frankish

    This sounds like *exactly* what I need.
    Bah, Peter! I’m convinced you only do this to wind up us PC users.

  5. I’ve been looking for something like this forever. Lifehacker had an article long ago about how to use iTunes to catalog pdfs, but the problem is that you can’t simultaneously have your music library and pdf library open. Acrobat Pro has a built-in pdf Organizer but it’s rubbish. So I’ve reverted to building a directory tree (“to read”, “logic”, “epistemology”, etc.) where I create shortcuts to pdfs that live in a single directory. Notice this trick requires no memory hogging application!

    Another idea is to use Zotero, a Firefox plugin. You can tag, catalog, add notes, etc. to pdfs. The only problem is that if the preferred behavior of your browser is to open pdfs within the browser, then that’s what’s gonna happen when you try to open them from Zotero.

  6. “Lifehacker had an article long ago about how to use iTunes to catalog pdfs, but the problem is that you can’t simultaneously have your music library and pdf library open.”

    Not so. I use the same library for both. The comments field is quite useful – smart reading lists for the various topics you’re interested in.

  7. Yes, you CAN use the same library for both, but most people (I’ve conducted a survey) like to keep separate their pdf from their music library. It would help if you could run multiple instances of iTunes, but you can’t.

  8. How do you personally make use of DevonThink, if you don’t mind my asking? I’m thinking about going for it, but was very curious how others in academic circles make use of it.

    1. To be honest, I seem to have stopped making any use of DevonThink. I perhaps never really got into it (except as a more intelligent search engine for down-loaded papers), and I’ve not found myself using that facility in — oh — the last year.

  9. hey,
    after reading your post about papers a couple days ago i talked to a friend at my department about it. he recommended mendeley instead ( i’ve only been toying with it for a couple of days but seems to me to be very close to papers. and it has some neat extra features too, like storing your libraries online for use on different computers and connecting researchers through research networks. right now, the biggest perk seems to me to be that its free. but then again, i have only been testing papers for a couple of days, too.
    i was wondering what you thought of mendeley. have you ever heard about it? i’ve been thinking about investing in a decent program like papers but want to explore alternatives first. maybe you feel like giving it a look and sharing your thoughts.

    1. I haven’t looked at Mendeley since an early version which I thought was a tad ugly and not friendly. I must though have another look sometime soon as a lot of effort and some public money is going into it’s development.

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