My Papers to Sente Workflow

In a previous post I discussed two great programs, Third Street Software’s Sente & Mekentosj’s Papers, for managing your bibliographic data on Mac computers. Papers, in my view, is much better at finding references and PDFs but Sente is great at getting those references into your documents. I love having both, but if you can only buy one program I would recommend Sente. It has the added functionality of document citation and allows you to find references too, I just don’t think it’s as enjoyable to use as Papers. The setup below allows me to use the best features of each program and really enhances my personal research.

Since I have three Macs that I use regularly (my primary computer is a MacBook Pro, but I also borrow my wife’s iMac on occasion and have a Mac Mini at work) it’s important that I not only keep Sente and Papers in sync with each other, but also keep those two programs in sync on three different computers. Thankfully this isn’t all that hard to do.

The setup below assumes that you prefer using Papers as a reference finder basically just want to use Sente to cite those references. If that’s not the case, then there is probably an easier way to sync the two.

Step One: Sign up for a Dropbox Account

[If you already have a Dropbox account, skip to Step Two. If you only have one computer this is optional, though still highly recommended since you’ll essentially have an off-site backup of all your references.]

After you sign up for an account you’ll download the Dropbox application. This will install a folder on your computer and anything you put in that folder will be seamlessly synced to any other computers where you do the same. It’s quite amazing how well this program works. It’s also free for up to 2GB of data (if you use this link we’ll both get an extra 250MB worth of space).

Dropbox will create a new folder called “Dropbox.” You get to choose where you want that folder to be located so I’d pick a place that’s easy to navigate to. Regardless where you put it, just remember the location.

Step Two: Move your Papers Folder to the Dropbox Folder

All the files that Papers uses are conveniently located in one single folder called “Papers” (unless you changed it to something else when you installed the program). Move that folder into the newly created Dropbox folder. The next time you run Papers it won’t be able to find the files that it needs, but it’s relatively straight forward to select the new location within the Dropbox folder. Once you’ve done that you can continue to use Papers just like you did before. Repeat this process on any other computers you use and you’ll always have the exact same reference library on each machine.

If you have the basic (i.e. free) Dropbox account you only get 2GB worth of data to sync. Some may be worried that having your entire reference library will take up too much space. That may be true for some people, but to give you an idea of what to expect I have over 400 references from my Papers library, all my dissertation files, and four years worth of class files and I’ve only used just over 30% of that 2GB. (That will continue to grow, but Dropbox has a generous referall program – see link above – that allows for up to 10GB for free. If you need more than 10GB of data then you can buy additional space at a fair price.)

There is one more thing you’ll need to do before we move on. In Papers create a “Smart Collection” with some specific rules. All you need to do is select ‘File’ then ‘New Smart Collection’. From the popup window select “Date of Import” for the first dropdown menu, “After” for the second menu, and then type today’s date in the third box. Any references you find on or after that date will automatically be added to that smart collection (we’ll change that date later on, but today’s date is fine for now).

Step Three: Set up Sente to Work with Your Papers References

What I want between the two programs is for each to always have the exact same references on all three computers. If you’ve been using Sente and Papers together already, then you’ll need to figure out a way to merge the two into one. I didn’t want to mess with that hassle and just created a brand new library within Sente. That may not be an option for you if you have two significantly different sets of references. Merging the two goes beyond this guide so once you get that figured out, come back and see how to keep them in sync.

One of the advantages of Sente over Papers is that it has built in syncing for your files and references. So if all you are using is Sente you don’t even have to bother with Dropbox because the program itself will automatically stay in sync with your other computers. The downside to using the built in syncing with this setup is that you’ll end up with two copies of each PDF. If that’s something you want to avoid then you can tell Sente to only link to PDF files and not copy or move. That’s what I’ve done.

To set it up just open Sente, go to the preferences pane, and select ‘Attachments’. Choose to ‘Link to the file where it is’ and then close the preferences pane. When it’s time to get the Papers data over to the Sente program all the bibliographic data from Papers will be copied over, but the PDFs will stay where they are.

To keep that bibliographic data in sync across multiple computers you’ll also need to turn Syncing on within Sente. This can be done in the preference pane, but for more detailed instructions I suggest visiting their website. (It is very easy to do.)

Step Four: Finding New References

Now is the fun part. Open Papers and find new references and PDFs. When you’re ready to start citing them in your word processor (or just want to have these new references in Sente) select the smart collection you created in Step Two (I called mine ‘Transfer’ just to make it easy to find) and then go to ‘File’, ‘Export’, ‘EndNote XML Library’. A popup window will appear. In the first dropdown menu select “Selected Group” and in the second “Endnote 8 or higher.” Give the export a name and save the file to a place easy to find.

Next, right click on the smart collection from Step Two and change the date to the current date (this will prevent you from getting duplicate references in Sente). For example, if you’ve been adding references to Papers for two weeks, then the smart collection will only pick out the references you added within those two weeks. After you export them to Sente you don’t want to export them a second time so just change the date in the smart collection rule to the current (or next) day. The next time your export your references you won’t have any duplicates.

Step Five: Importing Your Files

Open the Sente library you created in Step Three and select ‘File’, ‘Import’. Navigate to the file you saved in Step Four and click ‘Open’. Now all the references you had in Papers are now in Sente along with links to the associated PDFs. Sente will take care of syncing each computer’s references on its own and the Papers references are kept in sync via Dropbox. Additionally, because Sente is only linking to the files in your Dropbox folder you’re not getting two of every PDF file.

A Caveat

All things are not perfect and neither is this. If you have more than one computer and the Home Folder does not have the same name on each computer then Sente will not be able to locate the “linked to” files on the additional computers you set up. You have two options: change the name of your Home Folders to match or copy the PDF files instead of linking to them. Doing the first is cumbersome, but not difficult if you follow these detailed instructions. (Please do a quick Google search about changing the name of your Home Folder before engaging in this task. I’ve had no problems with this, but would feel bad if you did and I didn’t warn you.) The second avoids this process but you do end up with either multiple copies of each PDF (if Sente copies the files) or no PDFs for Papers (if Sente moves the files). Since I like to read my PDFs in Papers because of its outstanding PDF reader, I decided to just make my Home Folders match and haven’t had any issues with it at all. (Occasionally you may have to update where a program thinks it’s files are since it’ll look for them under the old Home Folder name. It takes 2 seconds to navigate to the new folder so that wasn’t a big deal for me.)


I hope that this makes your academic research easier. It’s only a small amount of work to set up, but once you have it will truly revolutionize your work flow. I simply love being able to sit down at any computer I own and know that I have all my references and PDFs and any new ones I find at that computer will be accessible at all my others.


This may seem like a complicated process, but most of the above are one-time-only tasks. Once everything is set up, here’s what the workflow looks like.

1. Browse for new references and PDFs using Papers.

2. As needed, export the Smart Collection within Papers as an ‘EndNote 8 or higher’ file.

3. Import that file into Sente.

4. Use Sente to cite those references in your masterpiece!

5. Publish said masterpiece and get tenure!

Dropbox ensures that all my computers always have the exact same Papers library. Exporting the smart collection gets all that information to Sente which is responsible for syncing the information to Sente on all of the other computers.

So, what do you think? Is there any easier way to accomplish the same thing? If so, please let me know in the comments.