Reference Management: Exploring Sente

So, over the past few months I have been exploring Papers and Sente for organising my literature and annotating pdfs. In this post, I’ll be outlining my experience with Sente so far. It’s somewhat of a love/hate relationship, but it’s mostly love.

In short, Sente is a reference manager for mac and iPad which allows you to organise your references, attach and annotate your pdfs, and insert citations and bibliographies when you are writing academic papers.

Contrary to most reviews, I prefer the user interface of Sente to that of Papers. It’s clean, it’s easy to get a full overview of reference information, attachment(s), and your organisational hierarchy at the same time, and once you get your short cuts set up it’s pretty easy to manoeuvre. Here’s a screen shot of the view that I usually work with:

Screen shot of Sente’s user interface

In the column to the left, you will see the library folders and tags, then follows the list of references, then the attached pdf, and finally, to the right, the reference information. You can change this view (for example, by removing the pdf view, by applying a ‘grid view’ to the reference list, or by having the second and third columns on top of each other rather than side by side), but this is my preferred option.

To the left on the picture, you will see my tag structure. This is one of the features that won me over with Sente. I have a lot of literature that can be categorised within more than one thematic area, and the ability to organise my literature around tags has greatly improved my work flow in terms of organising my literature reviews and retrieving the articles I need. I have tags for thematic areas, tags for special issues, tags for the chapters in specific books, tags for different methodological and theoretical approaches, tags for current writing projects, and so on. I find it much more dynamic than working with folders.

Another feature I love about Sente is the automatic sync with my iPad. Sente comes in both a mac and an iPad version, and they keep in sync without me having to do anything. Annotations also sync – if you highlight a section of text on a pdf on your iPad, it’s immediately visible in the mac version. You can also make as many duplicate (sync-able) libraries as you wish, which makes Sente perfect for working on multiple macs, or for collaboration with other researchers (if they are also using a mac, that is – there is no version for Windows). Beware, though: several users (including myself) have reported that their tag structure disappears when creating synced libraries. This is extremely annoying, and means that you have to recreate your entire tag structure from scratch (the references keep their tags, however). It is therefore advisable to create your synced library as early as possible, before you have spent hours setting up your tag structure.

A third thing I love about Sente is the ‘quote feature’ for annotating pfds. After I open a reference for reading and annotation (by double clicking on the reference), it opens up in a new window. From there, I can highlight text for annotation, for quoting, or both. If I choose a section of text and select ‘quote’, a notes window opens up to the right, where the text I have quoted is shown and I can add my own comments to quoted text. This also works very well in the iPad version, and makes it easier to get a quick overview when you go back to an article you have previously reviewed. Here’s a screen shot of the quote function at work, see the yellow box to the right.

Screen shot of the quote function

Having said that, the annotation capacities of reference managers such as Sente and Papers are generally severely limited. Compared to apps such as iAnnotate, GoodReader and PDF Expert for iPad, they are a bit like toddlers next to a professor emeritus. There is no free text directly on the pdf by hand writing or keyboard, no underlining, no strike through, no bookmarks,  and so on. Your options in Sente are highlighting, or creating a quote or a comment.

The last thing I’ll highlight which I really like about Sente is the targeted browsing. Sente comes with a browser which allows you to look up journal articles or search google scholar within the application, in turn making it easy to import the reference information and the pdf directly into Sente. The ‘targeted’ bit of the browsing means that Sente gives you a red little circle that you can click on to import the reference. If your reference is already in your library, the red dot will be replaced by a Sente icon. Here is what it looks like at the table of contents page of an academic journal. Click on the red dot, and your reference will be imported:

Screen shot of the table of contents of a journal, as seen in the in built browser.

So, that were some of the ‘love’ factors. Now, for what I’m less enthusiastic about:

I already mentioned the lack of annotation capacities. Coming from iAnnotate, it was a huge drop in performance. However, Sente doesn’t perform any worse than other reference managers in this respect, if anything I prefer it over Papers. A second issue is that the app is fairly bug ridden, more so than I would expect from an app in that price range.  A third thing is that you can’t search for particular words within a pdf text. I was pretty astonished when I realised that, since I consider it a really basic function in terms of the work that most researchers do. The app also isn’t that great at discovering duplicates, and there is no way to search for them manually, which I find strange. Finally, compared to Papers, I miss being able to distinguish between ‘last import’ and ‘today’s import’.

A feature I haven’t properly tested yet is the cite while you write functionality, and I’m not sure I will anytime soon. Sente doesn’t come with the styles I need, so I would have to adapt one to create my own. I’ve also seen conflicting reports on the accuracy of formatting citations and bibliographies. Having tried a few different options, I’m currently back to EndNote for cite while you write – while outdated in many ways, that program has never failed me in terms of rendering reference information correctly, and I know my way around tweaking a particular style to meet journal requirements.

So, rather than a full review, these are my initial pros and cons on Sente. If you have any experiences to share, please let me know in the comments area!


Related posts: Managing your research literature: Sente versus Bookends

On academiPad: Sente versus Papers: What is the best PDF management system?  


About macademise

I am a researcher working in the intersection of anthropology, learning and cognition.
This entry was posted in iPad, literature review, pdf annotation, reference management and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Reference Management: Exploring Sente

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  4. Jo says:

    Thanks for putting up my post here. I am also on Sente for my own work, very much enjoying the quote function as well. It helps you to organize the paper, and often you just have to read through the column on the right to get an idea of the paper you had read some time ago.

    Jo from academiPad

  5. I am trying to see if I can move to only mobiles devices, with no laptop. Can Sente work like that?

    • macademise says:

      Depends what you want to do with it. You can add content/articles, edit their meta data, annotate pdfs, and email articles from Sente for iPad. But you won’t be able to use cite while you write or generate bibliographies if you are writing an academic paper in, say, Pages on your iPad.

  6. Farley says:

    I’m also exploring reference manager solutions. One feature that matters most is the synchronization of annotations across devices and pdf readers. It seems like most software stores annotations separately for fast syncing and lacks functions to write annotations back to the pdf at user request (should be still editable). Did you find out a solution that truly synchronizes annotations across devices and pdf readers? Take Sente for example. Can its annotations be displayed in external pdf readers and are the annotations done by external readers saved and synchronized through the pdf file?

    • macademise says:

      Thanks for the comment and apologies for the delay in response. I annotate my pdfs either in iAnnotate or GoodReader on my iPad (another good alternative would be PDF Expert). I use these rather than the in-app features in Sente and Bookends, because they are just much more sophisticated annotation tools (although the Sente quote and comment feature is quite nice). These annotations then show up on my mac when I use Skim to open my PDFs from Bookends.

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