The Soft Bulletin: PDF organisation

I recently asked on Twitter for any recommendations for software to organise my PDFs. I got several replies, but nothing really fitted the bill. This is a brief summary.

My situation

I have quite a lot of books, textbooks, cheat sheets, manuals, protocols etc. in PDF format and I need a way to organise them. I don’t need to reference this content, I just need to search it and access it quickly – ideally across several devices.

Note: I don’t collect PDFs of research articles. I have a hundred or so articles that were difficult to get hold of, and I keep those, but I’m pretty complacent about my access to scholarly literature.

I currently use Papers2 for storing my PDFs. It’s OK, but there are some bugs in it. Papers3 came out a few years ago, but I didn’t do the upgrade because there are issues with sync across multiple computers. Now it doesn’t look like Papers will be supported in the future. For example, I heard on Twitter that there is no ETA for an issue with Papers3 on Sierra. Future proofing – I’ve come to realise – is important to me as I am pretty loyal to software, I don’t like to change to something else, but I do like new features and innovation.

I don’t need a solution for referencing. I am resigned to using EndNote for that.

Ideally I just want something like iTunes to organise my PDFs, but I don’t want to use iTunes! Perhaps my requirements are too particular and what I want just isn’t available.

The suggestions

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions. Together with other solutions they were (in no particular order):


I downloaded this and gave it a brief try. PDF import worked well and the UI looked OK. I stumbled on the sync capabilities. I currently sync my computers with Unison and this is complicated (but not impossible) to do for Zotero. They want you to use cloud syncing – which I would probably be OK with. I need to test out which cloud service is best to use. There is a webDAV option which my University supports and I think this would work for me. I think this software is the most likely candidate for me to switch to.


This software got the most recommendations. I have to admit that the Elsevier connection is a huge turn-off for me. Although the irony of using it to organise my almost exclusively Elsevier-free content would be quite nice. I know that most of this type of software has been bought out by the publishing giants (Papers by Springer, EndNote by Thomson Reuters/Clarivate), but I don’t like this and I don’t have to support it if I don’t want to. I didn’t look into sync capabilities here.


People rave about this software package for Mac. I like the fact that it has a separate lineage to the other packages. It is very expensive and it is primarily a referencing package. Right now, I’m just looking for something to organise my PDFs and this seems to be overkill.


I use Evernote as a lab notebook and it is possible to use it to store PDFs. You can make a NoteBook for them, add a Note for each one and attach the PDF. The major plus here is that I already use it (and pay for it). The big negative is that I would prefer a separate standalone package to organise my PDFs. I know, difficult to please aren’t I?

Finder and Spotlight

This is the D.I.Y. option.

I have to say that this is the most appealing in many ways. If you just name PDFs systematically and store them in a folder hierarchy that you organise and tag – it would work. Sync would work with my current solution. Searching with Spotlight would work just as well as any other program. I would not need another program! At some point in the past I organised my PDFs like this. I moved to storing them in Papers so that it would save them in a hierarchical structure for me. This is what I mean by an iTunes-like organiser. An app to name, tag and file-away the PDFs would be ideal. I don’t want to go back to this if I can help it.


Like Mendeley, this is an option that I did not seriously entertain. I think this is too far away from what I want. As I see it, this software is designed as a web extension and paper recommendation service, which is not what I’m looking for.


As mentioned above, the lack of updates to this software and problems with sync mean that I am looking for something else. I really liked Papers2 and would be happy to continue using this if various things like import and editing were improved. I guess the option here is to stay with Papers2 and put up with the little things that annoy me. At some point though there will be a macOS update which breaks it and then I will be stuck.


I use Endnote for referencing. I hate Endnote with a passion. But I can use it. I know how to write styles etc. and edit term lists because I’ve used it since something like v3. At some point in the past I began to store papers in Endnote. I stopped doing this and moved to Papers2. I have to admit it’s OK at doing this, although the way it organises the PDFs on disk is a bit strange IMO. I don’t like storing books and other content in my library though so this is not a good solution.


Here is a curveball. I use iBooks and Kindle app for reading books in mobi/epub/pdf format. Actually, iBooks works quite well for PDFs and has the ability to sync with other devices. I have a feeling this could work, although some of the PDFs I have are quite bulky and I’d need to figure out a way for them to stay in the cloud and not reside on mobile devices. It’s definitely designed for reading books and not for pulling up the PDF in Preview and quickly finding a specific thing. For this reason I don’t think it would work.

Note that there are other apps for this task. Also, if you search for “PDF” in the App Store, there plenty of other programs aimed at people outside academia. Maybe one of those would be OK.

So what did I do?

I doubt anyone has the precise requirements that I have and so you’re probably not interested in what I decided. However, the simplest thing to do was to import the next batch of PDFs into Papers2 and wait to see if something better comes along. I will try Zotero a bit more when I get some time and see if this is the solution for me.

The post title is taken from The Flaming Lips’ 1999 album “The Soft Bulletin”.


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