Papers: Your Personal Research Library

Mekentosj is a delightfully geeky company, specialising in science and research related software. Although they publish a few other applications, they’re best known for Papers, which won an Apple Design Award back in 2007.

The app used to be billed on their website as ‘Your personal library of science’, a subheading I’m pleased to see they’ve changed now to ‘Your personal library of research.’ Previously, it stood a chance of getting stuck in a kind of science-ghetto, where it might seem less interesting to others who would definitely benefit from it.

For researchers and students across all disciplines, writers and journalists, or basically anyone who needs a reliable focus and storehouse for their research, Papers is a great application and has few – if any – real competitors.

I was one of those at first put off by the app’s science focus. It also seemed more academic than I needed. Even now, after more than two years using it, I know there are features that I don’t use and hardly understand, and others that require access to services that are in use at University and other institutional libraries and inaccessible to most, and certainly to me.

I’m not making use of all its features, but I still find Papers an excellent app, and though I know it’s capable of much more, it’s just perfect for what I use it for. After the jump, I’ll walk you through some of its key features.

To my mind, Papers has three aspects: as a repository of documents I’ve downloaded or created myself, a library of references, and a PDF reader.

Getting Documents Into Papers

The Papers Interface

The Papers Interface

You’ll see that I’ve made a nice clean new library this afternoon for the purpose of writing this review. I simply took a bunch of articles from my archives and dragged-and-dropped them into Papers, which made copies of the articles in its own store directory (by default at /username/Documents/Papers and then separated into folders by publication date and authors’ names – this behaviour can be tweaked in the application’s Preferences…, but it’s straightforward and logical enough to probably suit most people’s needs).

You can also import by dropping articles on the Dock icon, or by clicking on ‘File’, ‘Import’, and then ‘PDF Files’.

Checking Your Sources

Most of my PDFs have been made from webpages or documents I’ve scanned or typed-up myself (yes, there are some texts I have loved so much that I’ve gone to the trouble of retyping them), and a few have been downloaded from the archives of a professional body I’m affiliated to.

None of these make best use of Papers’ capabilities: if I had more documents from academic sources, I would be able to take full advantage of the application’s document matching – as it is, very few of my PDFs turned up results. The process works like this: you select a document in your library and click ‘Match’ in the Inspector panel on the right of the screen.



This brings up a view of the document, along with a search box in the Inspector panel.

Viewing an Article

Viewing an Article

In this case, it’s set to Google Scholar, but there are several options to choose from by clicking on the pull-down menu at the bottom of the Inspector:

Source Options

Source Options

You can then enter keywords in the search box and Papers will search through the repository you’ve chosen and return results. In this example, I was able to discover that a new, updated version of the paper in my library appeared last year, and could then download that new version and trash the older one.

This is great for me, since some of the legislation and professional advice in the earlier version is now outdated – there’s a good example of how Papers can help to keep you updated on subjects that interest you.

You will see from the screenshot below that Papers is able to include with each document, along with authors’ names, source details and an Abstract. In this case, the Abstract is not very useful, but I have the option of clicking on Edit and changing the text to something more appropriate and meaningful.

Paper Abstract & Info

Paper Abstract & Info

Most academic journals that supply PDF versions of articles will include what’s known as a Digital Object Identifier (or DOI) in their document, which will embed information about each text.

Searching and Finding

Papers’ left hand panel shows your various sources: the Library of materials already stored on your Mac, which can be displayed by Author or Journal, and a series of Repositories that you can search. A number of these require a subscription to search, and most won’t let you download articles unless you are subscribed.

If you’re running Papers and are connected to a University or College library network there’s a good chance you will have access. For me, though, there’s no such luck, so though I can see Abstracts for items I search for, I can download very few of them – mostly via Google Scholar.

Searching & Filtering

Searching & Filtering

People sometimes say that University education is wasted on the young – I disagree, but I do think access to such resources as JSTOR were wasted on me when I was younger, and I wish I could get into them now!


By clicking on the + at bottom-left, you can create Collections of articles – obviously a great way of storing related material together.

Creating Collections

Creating Collections

Papers also has search facilities that allow you to search the entire text of each of your documents, so once you have your Library assembled, it’s quick and easy to access the information you need.


I’ve so far covered the first two aspects of Papers – storing articles and making an effective reference library. It’s actually the third aspect that I’ve used most: reading. Papers has excellent reading options. Click on View Mode in the bottom bar, and the Inspector disappears to give you more reading room.

Extra Room for Reading

Extra Room for Reading

But, actually, that’s not the best of it at all, because Papers has the most impressive fullscreen PDF viewer I’ve seen anywhere.

Full Screen Mode

Full Screen Mode

After a few seconds, the navigation panel at the bottom of the screen slides down and you’re left with a beautifully rendered, totally uncluttered screen full of text to lose yourself in.

If you need it, you can click on the Notes button to bring up a HUD style panel for you to type into – or cut and paste from your document as you read.

Papers on Your iPhone

Papers also has an iPhone app, which syncs very simply over a Wi-Fi network to transfer documents to your phone for reading on-the-go (this is another place where those Collections come in useful).

Syncing to the iPhone

Syncing to the iPhone

The iPhone app’s PDF reader is okay, but doesn’t stand out among the ranks of readers in the way that the desktop app does (I prefer GoodReader). As you can see from the screenshot below, it sometimes renders pages a bit oddly – compare the colours here with those in the desktop app in a previous screenshot…

Viewing on the iPhone

Viewing on the iPhone

The iPhone app has access to most of the same Repositories, so you can search for and download documents, and sync them back to your Mac. It’s a perfect companion app – though you can use it on its own, to me the best thing about it is the way it interfaces with Papers on my MacBook.


So there’s a little about how I work with Papers – I think I’ve covered the basics, though I know the application can do more. If you’re an academic, you really should check out Papers – there’s a free trial available, so give it a test run.

Don’t be daunted by the apparent “scienciness” of it: it works well across all disciplines. And if you’re a writer or researcher in some other context, I’d also recommend checking it out. There’s a generous (40%) discount available for students too.


Papers has three aspects: a repository of documents I've downloaded or created myself, a library of references, and a PDF reader. It's a brilliant way to keep track of research, has an excellent full-screen mode, and a companion iPhone app.



Add Yours
  • Sounds good but what are the advantages compared to using DevonThink & Bookends. Both of which integrate well with Scrivener.

    This has the potential to be an amazingly useful programme but can it work as a full bibliographic manager?

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  • As a researcher in Biology I have been using Papers for a long time.
    It can importr and export to Endnote and Bookends and has a truly fantastic search engine for downloading and matching articles, next to the ability of matching imported articles.

    Nice to see a review of this on Appstorm!.

  • Never heard of this, but it looks amazingly awesome. For students that do heavy research, this looks like a great tool!

  • I use Papers to organize scientific journal articles, and it is a great piece of software. The program can connect to PubMed, and I prefer to search through the program rather than on with a web browser because Papers will tell you in the list of results which papers are already downloaded in your library. Now, with Snow Leopard’s enhanced PDF annotations, I rarely feel the need to print out an article.

  • I could have benefited from the use of Papers in grad school. Anyway, I am always learning something very practical on the Internet. Thanks for your post!

  • Don’t forget that you can add your Institution’s eProxy details seamlessly, and get access to all the PDFs straight away, etc.

  • I am a biologist and I have heard about this software for a long time. After I recently moved to Mac, this was one of the first software I downloaded. I am still in trial period but I am loving it. Any news regarding free licenses?! ;) I would surely love it…

  • As an electronic researcher I can’t use a mac, as a lot of software is only available for Linux and Windows. So I found an alternative to run on my Linux box:

    • I wouldn’t count Mendeley as an alternative to Papers. Rather as a superior.

      • It has a lot of potential. It’s cross-platform and cloud-based. For now I found it rather buggy and it’s lacking a lot of features.

  • Amazing, this is perfect for me. As a graduate student, I couldn’t ask for anything more. Gettin ready to purchase with student discount. Thanks for sharing!


  • I have veen using Mendeley and it is certainly a lot less cluttered than Papers, but it’s iPhone app is completely useless. As I understand Papers’ is better but the annotation functionality still requires work as you still can’t send them to others by exporting them with the PDF. It all depends on what you want to do. Mendeley is free, so you should definitely have a look and compare the two before makingr any decision.

  • Not a bad application, but lacking in some fundamental functionality. In essence it is a PDF database, but with without some fundamental database capabilities, most notably importing content from, or synchronizing content with, another “Papers” library. There are also several other annoying “features” that the user has no control over.

  • I see that for researchers and students across all disciplines, and writers and journalists or anyone who needs a reliable focus this is the best. Have little doubt that your review is inaccurate because the standards of your assessment are high.