Literature: A New Low-Cost Reference Manager

After the holiday break, and with students heading into the new semester, many of us are trying to catch up on research for writing projects. Keeping track of sources for accurate citations is an important but time consuming part of research. Consequently, there are quite a few apps available to help organize citation libraries. Literature is a new app that seeks to provide a low cost alternative to other reference managing apps.

Currently, Mac users can choose from four main apps to organize their reference libraries: Endnote ($249.95), Papers ($79), Sente ($129.95), and Bookends ($99). Mendeley is also a viable free alternative with many useful features. At $19.99, Literature cannot compete with the feature sets available at the high end of this app category. Instead, it attempts to create a streamlined alternative that will attract users wary of the high price tags listed above. Let’s see how well it can fill in this segment of the market.

Getting Your Library Into Literature

The first step to using the Literature app is to import article PDFs. To accomplish this, I selected the PDFs from my desktop and proceeded to drag and drop them into Literature. Nothing happened. Okay, so there’s no drag and drop capability. Instead, I opted to use the import option in the file menu and to import the PDFs. While this method worked, it is less than ideal as only one PDF can be selected at a time. Hence, importing your library into Literature is a very laborious process.

This is the interface for importing PDFs into Literature. Unfortunatley, only one PDF can be imported at a time.

After importing my PDFs, Literature informed me that it could not find the citations for the articles I imported on the PubMed database. You can search the database from within Literature, which I did, but my articles were not in this database. That’s hardly surprising, though, since I’m not researching medical or life sciences topics. For users researching outside fields included in the PubMed database, citation information will need to be added manually by clicking on the Edit article info option from the edit PDF options menu (this actually looks like the share icon in many other apps). Literature’s website does note that future updates will include Google Scholar integration, which will be a welcome addition for those of us not researching medical research.

If your article’s citation is not found in the Pub-med database, you can manually add the citation information.

In short, if you have a sizable citation library, it is not going to be a simple process to move that library over the Literature. If you are just starting to build your library, or only want to use Literature for one writing project, then it still may work for you, but you’ll have to most of the reference work manually.

Navigating and Organizing Your Library

Once PDFs are in the library, its time to start organizing. Literature has several default categories: All items, Unknown, Unfiled, and Trash. New categories can be created by clicking on the plus button on the bottom left. The categories work like tags. This means that a citation can belong to more than one category, which is useful because citations are often used in more than one project. Dragging and dropping is not supported for adding citations to categories, so to add a citation to a category make sure the information window is showing. If its not, click on the information button at the top right, and then click the Add/Edit Categories to add the citation to one or more categories.

Citations can also be sorted within categories using several sorting options. Clicking on the circle and star icons at the top right of the window marks citations as read/unread or starred, respectively. Categories can then be sorted by unread or starred status. This makes it easy to keep track of which articles need to be read and which are most important. Searching the entire library and within certain categories is also supported.

Several sorting options are available for grouping citations within categories.

Using Literature for Research

Now that citations are in the library and organized, how does Literature perform for actually doing research? Better than it does for importing and organizing the library. This is definitely the area that Literature performs the best in.

Literature offers several standard viewing options for reading PDFs (one page, two page, continuous etc). It also supports text highlighting and will display annotations made in other PDF readers such as Preview. Clicking on the appropriate icon in the toolbar also displays a notes editor that supports rich text for taking notes on a PDF. Unfortunately I did not have any luck copying and pasting text from the PDF into the notes editor. If this can be improved in the future, the notes editor can be used for keeping track of possible quotes from articles.

Notes can be formatted in rich text.

One essential feature supported by Literature is the ability to search within PDFs. I use this all the time when I am trying to find a specific phrase or topic within an article. This is a big time saver and is implemented well by the Literature developers.

With Literature, users can search text within PDFs.

When it comes to actually citing, Literature does an adequate job. To cite, you simply select the citations you want included, then click on the PDF options menu and select Copy reference. From there simply paste into the word processor of your choice and the citations appear in alphabetical order. Using Literature, the workflow for a paper would be to make a new category, ensure all cites used in the paper are in the category, and then copy all the references in that category into the document.

While citing references using Literature is a fairly straightforward process, I ran in to a few problems using Literature to cite sources. First, when citation info is entered manually, there is a bug that displays the year previous to the year actually entered. For example, when I entered the year 2008, it was presented as 2007. Second, there are no fields for article volumes only issues. The citation style I use requires volumes, so the bibliographies created in Literature were incomplete for my purposes. Third, Literature only supports citations created from PDF imports. That means no books, edited volumes, or web pages can be included in the library. I cite books in every paper I write, so again, bibliographies created in Literature are incomplete for my purposes (and I suspect for many others too).

Likely Not for Professionals

Literature definitely has some limitations. These limitations make importing and managing a library more difficult than it needs to be. A few changes such as supporting, drag and drop, expanding the citation database, and allowing for book and web page citations will go a long way toward making this app more user friendly. It also has several bugs that need to be addressed, some of them mentioned in this review and others not.

Having said that, Literature does provide a clean, useful environment for reading and annotating PDFs. As is, Literature may be a workable solution for a student writing shorter papers, but is probably not for professionals with larger citation libraries.



A low-cost alternative to higher priced reference managers that shows promise but is in need of some polish.