Sente vs. Papers: Two Outstanding Bibliographic Management Tools for Mac

A large part of my job as a professor involves finding articles in professional philosophy journals and interacting with them in one way or another. Some I use for my own research projects and some I assign to students in my philosophy classes. Over the years I’ve started to amass quite a lot of bibliographic material. In the last year or so I started using a program called Papers that is designed to help academics find research material. A few months ago I tried out a new program called Sente that does the same, plus a few other things.

Below is my impression of both apps and a heavily qualified recommendation. Since I’ve had it longer, I’ll start with Papers.

Papers by Mekentosj (http://mekentosj.com/papers/)
Cost: $42 ($25 for students after a whopping 40% student discount)
Trial: Fully functional for 30 days

This is one of the most aesthetically pleasing apps on my Mac. From the carefully crafted dock icon (which you see ‘being built’ as the app installs) to the cutesy audio alerts when adding or deleting papers you can easily tell a lot of energy went into the fit and finish of this app. There’s a reason why they won an Apple Design Award in 2007.

The interface isn’t just pretty, though. It is very easy to navigate around the app. There are built in search repositories that allow simple, one-click access to research articles through JSTOR, Google Scholar, and host of others. Most of the repositories are geared towards the sciences, but browsing the forums indicates that more humanities plug-ins may be on the way. Once you get the articles into the program, there is a great full-screen PDF reader that also allows you to take notes about the article itself. The notes are stored along with the reference itself so a return to the full-screen reader isn’t required to pull them back up.

Inevitably you’ll end up with references by the same author with names spelled slightly differently. Thankfully, Papers allows you to merge authors into one which makes for a nice and clean main screen (you can do the same with journal names). You can also arrange groups of references into collections (one per chapter of your dissertation, for example) and ‘Smart Collections’ that will auto-populate based upon the criteria you give it.

If you use more than one computer it’s helpful to have the same references available on all the computers you use. Thankfully, it’s very easy to set up Papers to work with the free (up to 2GB) file-synchronization program Dropbox (if you don’t have an account already, use this link and we’ll both get an extra 250MB). Since Papers stores all its files in one folder all you need to do to sync multiple computers is install Dropbox on each one and then drag your Papers folder into the Dropbox folder. Very simple and very convenient.

Papers also has a very active forum so if you need help with a specific issue, someone is likely to respond to your question pretty quickly and ably.

There is one major downside to Papers. Unfortunately Papers cannot auto-magically send all this reference material to your word processor as a citation. To their credit, the makers of Papers have been forthright about not having this feature. They don’t see their program as a citation-generator but instead as a reference miner. While I understand they want to focus on finding and cataloging references very well, it would be great if I could also easily have my references formatted according to the Chicago Manual of Style (or APA, Harvard, etc.) and inserted into my current paper. Thankfully, there are programs that perform such a task.

Sente by Third Street Software (http://www.thirdstreetsoftware.com)
Cost: $129.25 ($89.95 for students)
Trial: Fully functional for 30 days

Sente is definitely the more costly of the two apps, but it costs more for a reason. Sente aims to do everything that Papers does but also adds in citation creation in your word processor. The recently released Sente 6.0 also adds in automatic library synchronization. You can even allow colleagues access to your reference library.

While Sente does have most of the features of Papers, it does not have the slick user interface that Papers does. Some programs are nice to use and others are a joy to use. Sente is more of the former whereas Papers is more of the latter. It’s not that Sente has a bad user interface, it’s just not as nice as Papers. When it comes to finding references Sente is still quite able, but it would be nice if it had a few of the features that Papers has.

For example, there are no search repositories in Sente. Instead you use its built-in web browser to navigate to journals and then import them to your library from that webpage. Sente does have a pretty nifty “targeted browsing” feature. Essentially, when you navigate to a supported page Sente adds small bulls-eyes next to each reference (unless you already have that reference in your library, in that case you see a small Sente logo). Click the bulls-eye and it starts to download the reference and, optionally, the associated PDF. In my experience it works pretty well, but even after several email exchanges with their support team I couldn’t get it to work with certain journals (a big kudos to them for the time they spent on my issue – even if they didn’t get it working).

Sente also lacks the merge option for authors and journals which, believe it or not, is something you’ll start to miss pretty quickly.

So finding references isn’t nearly as nice as Papers but Sente does create your citations for you. This will work with most major word processors, but all I use is Mellel so I can’t vouch for how well it works with other programs. After tooling around with Mellel and Sente together I can see why the Papers team has opted to forgo the ability to create citations. There are so many specific options for each citation method that it can be a bit overwhelming to even get started (the Chicago Manual of Style alone is nearly 1,000 pages long). Thankfully Sente has the main styles already built in, but in my case they weren’t perfect. It also wasn’t easy to figure out how to edit those styles to fit your specific situation. I ended up just creating my own set of journal, book chapter, and book citations from scratch. I’m sure it would’ve been faster to edit the built-in style but I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.

My Recommendation
In sum, Sente has almost all the features of Papers plus built-in synchronization and will generate your citations for you. These added features come at cost, however. Sente will set you back nearly $90 more than Papers (for students it’s closer to $65). Since you can get basic synchronization for free with Dropbox, the citation creation should be very important to you (Dropbox won’t allow you to sync your library with colleagues though). Papers doesn’t have all the features of Sente, but is much less expensive and is very enjoyable to use.

Since I, obviously, already have both programs I’m in a very fortunate position. I can use both! In the next day or two I’ll post a quick how-to guide for using both programs, keeping them in sync with one another, and keeping both programs on all your computers in sync too. In the meantime, feel free to post your thoughts or questions regarding either Paper or Sente.

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