Every academic accumulates papers and other references and I assume the vast majority of them use one of the many available software solutions (EndNote, Mendeley, Papers, ReadCube, Colwiz, Zotero, Quiqqa, Sente, and many more). I have tried many of the existing options and was disappointed by them all. They either did not get the correct metadata, made it hard to manually edit it, offered limited labeling and filtering features, made it more than trivial to add new papers, and many other sins that made me abandon them one after the other. The only one I have stuck with so far is Paperpile.
Paperpile is a web app and does not have an offline desktop version (according to the Paperpile forum it also is not a feature that is on the horizon in terms of the roadmap). The app uses unique features of the Chrome browser, stores the PDFs on the user’s Google Drive, and charges a small fee ($2.99 a month for academics, during the writing of this) – this means this is not for everyone (those who do not use Chrome or shun away from Google Drive, or simply refuse to pay for a PDF management solution might as well stop reading now). There are several features I really like about Paperpile and I am happy to share my thoughts about them:
- It is fast and has a simple and clean interface. It does what it should do – allow me to add PDFs, verify their metadata is correct, assign them labels so I can easily retrieve them later, and copy the metadata in Bibtex format.
- It has an extension for Chrome which makes adding papers extremely easy. I find the papers I want to read online and it makes perfect sense to just be able to add to my library from my browser. Paperpile does that in the background once I use the extension (two clicks is all it takes) and I can read through the paper while Paperpile downloads the paper and fetches the metadata.
- Metadata retrieval is very accurate. In fact, one of the most accurate experiences I have had in terms of correctly identifying all of the fields. But even when Paperpile fails in this it makes it very straightforward to correct the metadata.
- Plenty of options to sort the references. There are folders, labels, a very capable search option, and numerous filters. These all make it very easy to find the paper you need when you need it.
- It actually understands Bibtex. Several other solutions I have tried in the past have failed me considerably when it came to exporting the references in a .bib format. The fields were off, special characters got butchered, and I ended up with having to manually edit the .bib file due to multiple errors. Paperpile works well with Bibtex which is a necessary condition.
- SYNCHRONIZATION. I saved the best for last. The strongest feature you get with a web app is the fact that if you work on several machines you always have a synchronized version of your references. Other desktop apps offer similar capabilities but they are very handicapped. They either require a cumbersome process that might end up with your entire library getting corrupted (seriously Papers?) or they charge extra for the feature.
What do I not like about it? The lack of a PDF annotation app is the biggest drawback. Granted, that is in the works (MetaPDF) but it will still be a while until it is implemented within Paperpile. Regardless of how impressive the PDF annotation capabilities will be, this is probably a deal breaker for many people. Both Paperpile and MetaPDF are still considered in beta but there is considerable development and the current products are already very impressive. Update (07/08/2016): MetaPDF is now integrated into Paperpile and works very well. With that issue out of the way I give a much stronger recommendation. Just like Paperpile, anything in MetaPDF is saved in open formats so you can easily export the PDFs with their annotations if and when you decide to move to a different solution.
(If you read more about Paperpile you will notice that they heavily mention their integration with Google Docs but since I have never used it and have no plans on using it I did not mention it above. That being said, if you are a Google Docs user when it comes to writing academic papers, this is probably a very strong feature).
Tools of the Trade is a series of blog posts where I write about the tools and gadgets I use in my research or generally in life. It is an opportunity for me to share the things I discover and to reevaluate whether I am using the best option for me that is out there. A collection of these posts can be found here – Tools of the Trade: Repository.