The ultimate purpose of academic work is to advance and disseminate knowledge. This means constantly identifying, absorbing, engaging with and eventually challenging prior academic work. There are several Mac apps that can support this process. Ideally, such an app would help to find scientific publications online, download and organise the relevant files (usually in pdf format) on local computer as well as related bibliographic meta-data (e.g. author, year of publication and title), annotate these files, and finally insert citations and bibliographies referring to this work during academic writing.
Earlier on Macademic, I wrote many entries on Papers, in my view the best academic reference and pdf management software for a Mac. However, a few years ago Papers was discontinued and started to be less compatible with new versions of macOS. As crashes became frequent, I searched for a replacement. For a while I used Mendeley – it worked ok, but I always had a feeling that it is not an app developed with a user in mind. I also tried Sente, Zotero, BookEnds and EndNote, but nothing was comparable to Papers in its ability to organise, annotate, share and cite.
Eventually, I started working with the new re-incarnation of Papers , which is now developed by ReadCube. It is still beta, but I have already used it in several manuscripts and in daily work, so I can share a few first impressions.
The first (and the most dreadful) hurdle in switching to a new reference manager is transferring your existing library. ReadCube provides a special utility to import Papers 3 libraries. At the time, I had some 3,000 Papers documents and these were imported without significant problems. Of course, I kept a backup of my old library, but so far I have not used it. ReadCube can also import pdf files or reference libraries such as BibTex (in case you want to import from Mendeley or other software).
Papers is available as a browser, macOS, and iOS app. All synchronise pretty seamlessly (except the iOS app does not sync hierarchical collections yet) and you may need to work with all of them for different purposes. The macOS/browser app has many amazing functions of the original Papers, here are five that I use most often:
- adding a pdf from a designated ‘watch’ folder (if you download a pdf from the Internet in this folder – you’ll then find it in your library);
- organising pdfs on your computer (e.g. in folders corresponding to authors) so that you can always locate them (e.g. for sharing with others);
- organising your documents by tags (for example on a specific topic) or collections (for example cited in a specific publication); a lovely recently added feature is the ability to search for tags as shown in the screenshot below; it’s also possible to flag, rate and color-tag your references;
- sharing your libraries with collaborators;
- searching for new references on the Internet and quickly adding them to the library.
There are still serious omissions, which make me hope ReadCube will improve their product to match the original much loved app:
- to download pdf files behind the paywall through your university proxy you need to use the browser, not the desktop version of the app;
- to simply email a reference and the related pdf to a student or a collaborator (something I do a dozen times per day) is not possible with one click, as it was in Papers 3; one has to click on the Share through email button, then locate the file in Finder (right-click the entry in the reference list and you’ll see this option) and then drag the file onto the email;
- managing authors is worse than rudimentary; once the authors are entered it is impossible to edit them or change order, all you can do is to delete everyone and enter anew; furthermore there is no general author list (as in Papers 3) which I used to find duplicates, spell the names correctly and consistently, etc.
- earlier one could match the metadata from the Internet to avoid manual entry, now this feature has miraculously disappeared.
I will review citation with ReadCube Papers in one of the next entries and meanwhile hope that ReadCube will keep improving this promising product.