Sente Review: Bibliographic software for the Mac & iPad

This is a repost from January 14, 2011. I had thought about doing a new post, but it is still relevant and came up in my conversation with our new Tombros Librarian Chuck Jones and CLA associate dean Christopher Long.

I still find Sente to be most useful for me and their new Sync2 has made it even better and easier to set up the same bibliography on multiple machines (i.e., to share with others). There are new pricing structures with Sente 6 as well. There is a free account with up to 250MB of storage and the iPad app is now free. The Sente app for Mac at full price should only be $49.95, for an academic the cost is even less, $29.95. That comes with 1GB of storage (so far enough for me). You can now also purchase more server space anywhere from 5GB at $20/yr to 100GB for $130.

A few other links have been updated in the body of the post as well.

Original Post:

14 January 2011

I am getting (finally) deeper into my research project on Targum Ruth and needing to organize my bibliography and research PDFs. Now while you all know that I am no luddite I will tell you that database software and bibliographic software in particular is my kryptonite. My brain simply locks up when I try and understand how they work and what is going on. Fortunately I have a very patient and hard-working grad assistant who has helped me through this process.

My PSU colleague Chris Long has written about his “Evolving Digital Research Ecosystem” [Updated post: “Sente, Mendeley, Zotero: Too Many Sharp Tools“] and has long encourage me to consider Zotero and Mendeley. However, see above. Mendeley in particular strikes me as overwrought. Both, however have the benefit of being free. Clearly what I needed to do was to prioritize my needs and consider the options. Like Chris I wanted to close the circle on my digital research process (see my earlier post regarding using the iPad for research) and I think I have found the solution, albeit not a free one.

Criteria for a solution:

  • Available on both Mac and iPad
  • Store both bibliographic information and associated files (images, PDFs, etc.)
  • Allow annotation of PDFs
  • Synchronize between Mac and iPad
  • Integrate with Nisus Writer Pro, my word processor of choice

There are, to the best of my knowledge, only two solutions that meet the first criteria, Papers and Sente. Both have an iPad app (Papers has an iPhone app as well) and a desktop app. Papers is a bit cheaper on the iOS, $14.99 as opposed to $19.99, but Sente offers a free Sente Viewer (does not allow markup). Papers desktop app is $42 while Sente is hefty $89.95. Both offer student discounts but Sente allows you to use the license on up to 3 machines (e.g., my office and home machine and my grad assistant’s machine). So as I said, not free. Fortunately both offer the chance to demo the desktop software for free (something that will not be possible with the new Mac App Store, they will have to do “lite” versions, as in the iOS App Store).

I did not get very far in testing Papers because early on I was told that it only supports journals, not books and does not allow you to annotate PDFs. The first sounds dubious to me (how could they possible not include all forms of bibliographic data?) but the second was a deal breaker. As much as I like iAnnotate I want the benefit of a complete ecosystem. That left me with Sente and so far I can say that I am very pleased.

The best way to offer this review is simply to describe how events transpired. Eric (my GA) took the Bookends1 database that a previous GA had prepared with about 170 entries and we had a folder (shared on Dropbox) of about 90 PDFs. Eric exported the Bookends file into an Endnote format and the imported it into Sente desktop app. Perfect! Everything came right in with no troubles. He then associated the PDFs with the relevant citation/entry. (You can have Sente store these all in a bundle or as a folder that it will automatically organize for you. I chose to have it import the PDFs and organize them for me and I will later delete the original folder of PDFs.)

At this point we were sharing one database file via Dropbox. This works but you need to be careful not to have it open in two places at one. Fortunately Sente has a solution for this: Sente 6 Synchronized Libraries!

Work on your library on any of your computers and always have up-to-date information everywhere. Or, share one library with any number of colleagues, and give each person the appropriate level of access to your data.

I won’t bore you with the details of the process, but suffice to say that I have the main DB on my office Mac (all are actually backed up via Dropbox) and open the synchronized library on my machine at home, as does Eric. I take notes on a PDF, either in Sente app on the desktop or on the iPad and all copies of the PDF update. One major caveat: you must markup the PDF only in a Sente app. You can open them in other apps but the changes will not be synchronized. As Eric adds new bibliography and PDFs all copies of the database update and the various “smart folders” like “recent changes” make it easy to see what my collaborator has been working on. You can also create status tags (and sort by them) so he can flag something as “follow up” and I will see it immediately.

Once you have set up the Sente iPad app you have access to all of your bibliographic material, attachments and all, automatically synced. (You use the iTunes interface to initially add the synced library file and from then on the updates occur over the air, no hardware syncing required.) Inside the iPad app you can highlight, quote, and annotate your PDFs. They obviously have to be OCRd before you add them to Sente to be able to use the quote feature, but even if they are not OCRd or simply are graphics you can use a box tool to lasso the relevant portion (which is then saved as an image in the note) and you can add your annotation as you see fit. You can then send the notes, bibliographic data, and quoted text to someone via an email. I have included a number of screenshots below from the iPad app. I should add that the app can be slow to respond when reading and annotating a PDF. Since iAnnotatePDF regularly warns its users about sluggishness due to large PDFs I am assuming it is a memory issue. It is certainly usable, but does merit some patience at times.

Both the desktop and iPad app make it very simple to add both references and PDFs from within the app using their integrated browser and database searches.

I have not yet tried to use Sente within a paper for citation and bibliography creation. All accounts on the user groups are that it works fine with NWP and is built right in to Mellel. It also integrates well (so I read) with Word.

Everyone has their own work habits and patterns so Sente may not be for you and some will always only insist on using free options. So far I have found it to not only be incredibly solid but a great tool for collaboration. While I am reading an article I can highlight a footnote and send it in an email to my GA asking him to follow up on the references. All from within Sente. (And because Eric is so good, the next day I had a half a dozen new entries in my library with their PDFs!) This is some pretty tight integration and has certainly helped me in my research. YMMV.

  1. Apparently they too are working on an iOS app. []

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