Organising your research (and the rest of your life) with Devonthink

I’ve been meaning to write a post on Devonthink for a while, and while I initially wanted to explore some more of its features first, two things prompted me to write this up now: First, a conversation I had with Cassady over at Macrumors about the relationship between Devonthink and Bookends (I’ve written about BE here), and, second, because I noticed that a visitor had been directed to my blog through the search term “can Devonthink replace Sente” (I’ve written about Sente here and here). It seems people are increasingly considering DT as an alternative to more custom made reference managers for academic literature. Therefore, I thought I’d do a brief introduction to Devonthink, and say a bit about how it differs from reference managers like Sente and Bookends.   

First, the basics: Devonthink is a document manager, and a quite powerful one at that. It comes in four different versions, and you can compare their features here. Personally, I’ve gradually worked my way up from Devonthink Personal to Devonthink Pro Office. It was the conversion to searchable pdfs (OCR) that prompted my latest upgrade, and when I went from Devonthink Personal to Devonthink Pro, the main pull was the ability to create more than one data base. 

Here’s a screen shot from my DevonThink Pro Office:

Screen Shot 2013 11 30 at 01 15 52


A frequently cited downside with Devonthink is the user interface – it’s very old fashioned. However, I’m willing to forgive the developers for the lack of aesthetics because the app is otherwise awesome in so many ways. 


So, what is Devonthink good at?

It’s really good at capturing all kinds of stuff. Depending on which version you have, you can throw almost anything at DT. It takes a range of file formats (see the link above to see the specifics for each version). It has a good web clipper that works well in Safari. It has a sorter window, where you can drop things you want to add to your data base. This sorter can be mobilised from just about any app, and can be used even if DT is closed. I have configured my sorter window to include the folders I’m mostly likely to stick stuff in:

Screen Shot 2013 11 30 at 01 28 28


It uses powerful artificial intelligence to analyse and organise your documents. I haven’t used this much myself – but the features Keywords and ‘See Also and Classify’ are designed to make recommendations about what content goes together. To many users, this is what really makes DT stand out for document management. Personally, I have a very well established system of tags and smart groups that follow me across apps, so I don’t make much use of this capacity. 

There are a range of options for organising your files, including different databases (for DT Pro and up), static groups, smart groups, labels and tags. You can also link different files to each other. If you want a particular file to exist in more than one folder, you can either duplicate or replicate it. Duplicates are simply copies. Replicates allow you to have the same document in different places, but when you edit one of the versions, the edits will be visible in all of the clones. Which I find a bit magical. 

You can both import and index files. This means that you don’t have to import all the documents you want to work with into DT. For example, I have decided to index (rather than import) the attachments in my Bookends library. That way, I can link the pdf to different notes, images or other files in DT, but I maintain the advantages of using BE for importing reference information, and for syncing to my iPad. More generally, there is a long standing debate on importing versus indexing over at the Devontech forum. Ultimately, what works best for you will depend how your overall work flow is put together. Indexing also makes it possible to partially integrate file types that are not supported by DT (in my case, that’s usually files made in mind mapping or outlining apps). 


For my purposes, the main issue I have with DT (apart from the look of the UI), is that their iPad version isn’t great at the moment and the sync is a bit of a pain in the butt. While I have their iPad app, Devonthink To Go, I never use it. However, the good news is that they are rebuilding the iPad app from scratch, with much improved sync features. Once that’s in place, I think DT will have a more central place in my work flow. 


What can you use DT for?

So, does DT add value to academic research? This is where we get to the question of DT versus reference managers such as Bookends and Sente. 

There are two things DT doesn’t do that Sente, Bookends and EndNote do: importing reference information for your journal articles, and providing cite while you write capacity. Because DT To Go also isn’t very well developed yet, I personally don’t find DT to be an alternative to BE for managing my pdfs. I do, however have the Bookends attachments folder indexed in my DT data base for academic files, and for a good while I used to either import or type up all my literature notes in DT, and link them to the relevant pdf. DT also has templates for Sente and Bookends, which automatically imports meta data, abstracts and tags from either reference manager, and I find this a very useful feature. That template also includes a link which brings you straight to the relevant reference in BE or Sente.

However, until DT To Go has got the iPad app sorted, I’ve decided to keep all my literature notes in Evernote (and, to some extent, in Circus Ponies Notebooks – see my previous post on academic work flows). The sync with both of these apps is seamless, and Evernote in particular speaks to all my devices. Even when I sit and work on my Air, I tend to read notes using my iPad – it functions like my virtual notebook. So, painless sync is quite high up on my list of criteria. 

On the other hand, if you don’t have an iPad (or don’t care whether your literature notes are synced to your iPad), DT is probably much more interesting as a place to store academic notes. It’s also very convenient if your research includes data such as images, screen shots and web clippings – BE and Sente weren’t really created with lots of different files types in mind. I’ve heard of many historians in particular who find DT a very useful tool for organising data. 

When the new iPad version of Devonthink To Go is launched, I’ll probably use it more for academic work. At the moment, it’s primarily a more conventional data base for me. I keep all my personal files in one data base, various web clippings and other things related to my academic work in another (but not academic literature), and lots of web clippings for a future book project in a third database. However, on a general level, I warmly recommend the app – so if you think DT has a place in your academic workflow, don’t hesitate to try it out. All apps by Devontechnologies have trial version, as well as educational discounts. 


Related posts on this blog:

Reference Management: Exploring Sente

Managing your research literature: Sente versus Bookends





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2 Responses to Organising your research (and the rest of your life) with Devonthink

  1. Don’t you get just overwhelmed with so many tools? is there any sort of HUB for centralising all the information located in those tools? I’m currently using Evernote only, but their lack of server side encryption has got me on the look for an alternative.

    • macademise says:

      Yes, Evernote can take you very far, I know of people who rely on that for nearly everything (organising literature, note taking, to do lists, pdf hub, etc). I think this is partially a matter of personal “style”, I tend to diversify my tools. Initially, I tried to find the “perfect” app that would do “everything”, but I kept venturing out looking at new things. A general principle I have is that I distinguish between ‘hubs’ and ‘production’ apps. Hubs is where everything end up. For me, that’s Bookends (all my research literature), DevonThink (my personal filing cabinet), Evernote (all my notes, including literature notes by source) and Circus Ponies Notebooks (literature notes by theme rather than source, which is better served with an outlining tool which unfortunately Evernote doesn’t have). Stuff that ends up in any of these locations may get written/ drafted/ edited/ brainstormed/ outlined elsewhere, but they should ‘end’ their life in one of these apps depending on what kind of text/file it is. 2Do takes care of my task management.

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