Paperpile makes me more productive


9 April 2015

research team

One of the first things I tell my new research students is to use a reference management system to help them keep track of the papers they read, and to assist in creating bib files for their bibliography. Most of them use Mendeley, one or two use Zotero. Both do a good job and both are free.

I use neither. I did use Mendeley for several years, but it became slower and slower to sync as my reference collection grew. Eventually it simply couldn’t handle the load. I have over 11,000 papers in my collection of papers, and I was spending several minutes every day waiting for Mendeley just to update the database.

Then I came across Paperpile, which is not so well known as some of its competitors, but it is truly awesome. I’ve now been using it for over a year, and I have grown to depend on it every day to keep track of all the papers I read, and to create my bib files.

Paperpile is not free, but it is relatively inexpensive — $2.99 per month for academic users. Even poor research students can afford that.

It works differently from Mendeley and Zotero, in that everything is stored in the cloud and is accessible on any device with the Chrome browser. So there is no software to install other than a Chrome extension. It is blindingly fast and, like all good software, just works.

Just over 2000 of my references have attached pdfs and they are accessible on every device. A local copy is cached so if you come back to the same pdf later, it will not download a new copy.

There is a marvellous Chrome extension that detects references in the current browser tab and imports the details into your Paperpile collection with the click of a button. There is also tight integration with Google Scholar.

References can be shared by email from within Paperpile, including any attached pdfs.

Papers can be assigned to folders (which are actually more like tags as a paper can appear in multiple folders). I tend to set up a folder for each paper I am writing, and then export a bib file for that folder.

The switch from Mendeley was very easy — Paperpile simply imported the whole library, and it was ready to go.

There are some things I’ve lost in making the move from Mendeley to Paperpile:

  1. Paperpile’s search facility is limited to metadata (titles, authors, journal name, year, abstract and notes). It will not allow searching within pdfs, unlikely Mendeley which is particularly good in this area. My workaround is to sync my Paperpile library with Google Drive, so all the pdfs are stored in Google Drive as well as in Paperpile. I can easily search within pdfs on GDrive.

  2. Paperpile does not allow annotation of pdfs. It is easy to add notes to each paper, but it is not possible to highlight or annotate pdfs directly. But since I hardly ever did that, it wasn’t much of a loss.

  3. BibTeX keys were all replaced when I imported my library from Mendeley. I still have the bib files from my old Mendeley library, so old papers can be compiled without a problem. But with new papers, I need to either use the keys generated by Paperpile, or manually change the keys within Paperpile.

None of these have been serious enough to make me want to go back to Mendeley, and the speed and simplicity of Paperpile have won me over and made me more productive.