Some of you may be aware of the productivity cult known as “Getting Things Done” (GTD). Although I find the full-blown GTD approach doesn’t really fit well with an academic lifestyle (what’s the use of using “contexts” when your work follows you everywhere?), reading about GTD taught me a few basic principles that make me feel less stressed out by allowing me to focus better on the work at hand. I mention GTD because I intend to use it as a framework to discuss reference management software, especially Sente for the iPad which recently got a significant upgrade. This review consists of three sections: 1. Applying GTD principles to academic reading with Sente. 2. Some comments about new features and continued limitations in the latest version of Sente for the iPad. And 3. Other options for reading and managing references on the iPad.
1. GTD and Sente
One of the key principles of GTD is to only have one “inbox.” This is important, because it means that when you are looking for what to do next, you know where to look. This may sound common-sensical, but in reality it is very hard to implement. At the end of a typical day I might have a note scrolled on the palm of my hand, a stack of bills in my mailbox, some email in my inbox about committee work I need to attend to, a stack of files sitting on my desk, and some unfinished documents on the desktop of my computer. A GTD approach requires you to immediately enter all of these various tasks in a single list. That could be a paper-based list, or it could be managed with software. What is important is that you find a system which is easy enough to use that you actually use it and that you trust your list absolutely. Trust is important, because if you don’t trust that all your tasks will be in your GTD list, you are likely to backslide to using multiple inboxes.
For me the main advantage of such a system isn’t necessarily increased “productivity.” I’m sure there are people who are much more productive than I am without such lists. No, what matters for me is the way having a single list reduces my stress. I don’t need to worry about what needs to be done because I know it is there on my list. If it isn’t on my list, I can ignore it. The GTD system further reduces stress by keeping things hidden that don’t need immediate attention. It does this by creating both date-based lists of scheduled tasks that only need to be started at a later date (e.g. an end-of-the year report that you can only start working on in December) and a bucket list of ideas for things you might do someday but don’t have time for right now (e.g. that Savage Minds book Rex and I keep talking about). It is for the excellent way it handles scheduling and deferring tasks that I am personally willing to pay a lot for the task management software Things.
GTD with Sente
Using specialized software to manage academic references violates the first principle I mentioned above – it is essentially a new inbox for your reading. But I’ve found that managing my academic reading is easier with such software – especially with Sente. Sente gives me a single “inbox” for all of my academic reading, and it allows me to perform triage on those texts so I know which items I should be focusing on at any given time. The fact that Sente can also allow you to annotate those documents and format bibliographies and in-text citations is an added bonus, but I would use it even with out those features. In fact, in my previous review of Sente I was still using the GoodReader app to annotate PDFs on my iPad. The updated PDF engine in Sente 6.7 means that for most (but not all) PDFs, this is no longer necessary.
I remember, as a college student, walking into my advisor’s office seeing a forest of books and journal articles piled several feet high. It took me a while to find my advisor hidden behind a narrow gap in the books and it felt like talking to someone in a prison cell. He insisted he knew where everything was and I believe him, but such a system would send me to an early grave. I’m probably just as bad about hoarding academic books and papers as he was but, because it is mostly digital, my desk is (mostly) clean. Still, even the PDFs have to be filed somewhere. Here is how I use Sente to keep them in order.
Let’s start with my multiple academic research inboxes. I learn about books and articles from:
- Article bibliographies
- Online searches (Google scholar, academic databases).
- Table of contents notification services
- Social media discussions (email, Facebook, blogs, etc.)
- Word of mouth
In some cases I might have a PDF or book and need to file it, in others I might just have a reference (or a partial reference) which I need to lookup. These might then be listed in a dozen different places: you have a folder of PDFs, you have a list of things to read for a particular paper, an Amazon wish list for books you wish to buy, a bibliography you’ve highlighted in yellow, marked with a post-it note, etc.
Sente can bring (some) order to this chaos. The most direct and helpful way it does this is by digesting PDF files. Feed Sente a PDF file with a DOI number and it will automatically pull the relevant metadata, and add the PDF to its database along with the title, author, journal name, publication date, keywords, abstract, etc. If it doesn’t have a DOI number, you can select the article title and search several online databases, including Amazon and Google Scholar, and Sente can eat the metadata that is there (although it might not be as error-free as the metadata associated with a DOI file). You can also do these searches without a PDF and just save the metadata, adding the PDF at a later date.
The second way Sente helps bring order to your digital library is by labeling each item with a “status.” You can define the statuses yourself for each library and assign each one its own unique color. The ones I use are:
- Read and done. Sente also allows you to give articles ratings and I will usually assign a rating at the same time I mark something as finished.
- Currently in process. Since I’m usually reading several articles at the same time, it is useful to keep track of what still isn’t finished.
- Must Read
- Top priority. I combine these with “QuickTags” and “Custom Collections” to make separate lists of items I need to read for different research projects or for teaching.
- Like “must read” but not as important.
- Maybe something to read over vacation?
- Not relevant to anything I’m doing right now.
- Not sure if these articles are important or not – need to skim through them. Good to do when I lack the time or concentration to do the actual reading. Most of the items in my database are marked with this status.
- Need PDF
- Can’t examine yet because I couldn’t download the PDF.
- New stuff goes in here – review once a week.
That’s pretty much it. Now all my PDFs are in one place, I know what I need to read next, and I can safely ignore those things which are less important. Even better, you can sync the articles to Sente’s database which means that the same information will be on your iPad and your desktop. You can read the PDFs right in Sente and take annotations (which are synced in real-time).
2. Detailed notes on Sente 6.7 for the iPad
[Skip to #3 if you want to look at other options besides Sente.] The latest version of Sente for the iPad makes reading and annotating PDFs right in Sente that much better than before, but it still isn’t perfect. The biggest problem for many people will be the inability to do anything other than quote and highlight text. No marginal notes, boxes, underlining, or handwritten annotations. This may not be a big issue for PDFs with selectable text, but if you have something which hasn’t been run through OCR, you can’t annotate it in Sente. But no worries, because Sente 6.7 also adds support for the iPad’s “open in…” command, allowing you to send any problematic files to GoodReader. GoodReader is really the gold standard for PDF annotation on the iPad and there are a number of areas it still surpasses Sente (page cropping, page numbers, text-only view, the annoying need to confirm each “quote” in Sente, etc.) but for most articles I think people will now be happy to use Sente.
One big problem, which I hope will be fixed in a future release, is that if you do send a file to GoodReader from Sente and then send it back to Sente from GoodReader – it will create a new item in the database. So far there is no way to attach files imported this way to existing records. On the other hand, Sente does handle adding PDFs from the web to existing records and has some new-and-improved tools for searching the web to get new PDFs. For instance, you can select text in a bibliography and do an automatic search on Google Scholar to download that file. These automatic searches (called “autolinks”) need to be defined on the desktop, but they are very handy. I even created one to search AnthroSource. Still, there are a few hiccups which I won’t to into here. I filed a full report with the developers here if you are interested.
My two biggest complaints about Sente 6.7 are that it doesn’t play nicely with the Safari browser and that it doesn’t support tools for writing on the iPad. Even on the desktop I would really like to see support for “URL Schemes”: the ability to send URLs from Safari and have them open in the Sente browser. Right now Sente expects you to do all your work within Sente, but that isn’t practical. (See my discussion about multiple inboxes…) Similarly, it seems the developers don’t seem to expect people to actually do academic writing on the iPad, but I think many people do. For this reason it would be nice if one could copy citation markers and formatted citations (bibliography entries) on the iPad like you can on the desktop.
Finally, I should say a word about Sente’s new pricing, which was announced after my last review. Both on the Desktop and the iPad apps now can be used for free “to create any number of reference libraries, each with up to 100 references. And you can sync up to 250MB of attachments.” If you need more than that, however, you will need to pay for a premium account (for which there is an academic discount).
3. Other options
I’ve tried pretty much everything and I don’t consider any of the following to yet be serious contenders for either Sente or GoodReader. If you don’t want to use Sente I recommend just dumping your PDFs in a Dropbox folder and syncing to GoodReader that way. Many reference managers let you save your PDFs in a folder of your choice, so you can still use a desktop reference manager to organize your Dropbox folder if you like.
- Zotero with either ZotPad or PaperShip
- In my tests, neither of these options are ready yet, although PaperShip looks promising. A recent release of Zotero added some colored status labels that mimic some of the features I discuss in Sente, but I found the actual implementation rather lacking.
- Mendeley with either the Mendely app or PaperShip
- Mendeley’s app was just updated, but I think it still sucks.
- At first glance Papers looks promising, but in my experience, it simply isn’t as robust as Sente is and used side-by-side Papers seems lacking.
- This used to be my favorite desktop reference manager, but the lack of cloud sync with the iOS app (it only syncs via the local WiFi) is a major limitation for me and so I haven’t really explored it yet.
Did I forget to mention your favorite app? Let me know in the comments.