For many topics, especially the more complex ones, maps can be a useful way of visualising data and presenting them in an approachable way.
If you’re an academic, or working in field with heavy information management needs, such as medicine, you’re likely using a reference manager such as Zotero to store and manage all your readings (if you’re not, you really should…).
Zotero is a free and open-source reference manager currently supported by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and the Corporation for Digital Scholarship. Available on Windows, Mac and Linux, it’s a great alternative for researchers who need the power and flexibility of something like Endnote, but without the very high licensing costs. In the past, Zotero was only available as an extension to the open-source web browser, Firefox, but for the last few years now, it has been available as a standalone option for your desktop. The forthcoming Zotero 5.0 release will do away with the Firefox extension altogether.
One of the best features of Zotero is its ability to automatically synchronise your references and readings between your computers – a boon for anyone who does a lot of work on the go. However, Zotero’s free cloud storage tier is extremely limited (300MB), and beyond this you’ll need to pay for additional storage, which is ludicrously expensive: $20 a year for just 2GB, or $60 for 6GB. Compare this to something like Dropbox, where for £7.99 a month you get 1TB of storage, or even better, Microsoft’s OneDrive, where for the same amount you get 1TB of storage and an ongoing subscription to Microsoft Office, for up to 5 PCs or Macs.1 In comparison, Zotero’s cloud storage is very paltry indeed, and probably excessive when many of us are already using other cloud providers to sync our files.2
Using a free Zotero plugin, Zotfile, you can move your Zotero pdf library to another cloud storage provider while keeping the links to your attachments within Zotero intact. For Zotero Standalone, you need to head to zotfile.com and download the plugin installer (zotfile-xxxx-.xpi) to your hard drive. Then, within Zotero Standalone, go to Tools > Add Ons. Click the gear icon and then ‘Install Add On From File’ to locate the .xpi file and install Zotfile. You will need to restart Zotero Standalone for the installation to complete.
To configure Zotfile, select Zotfile preferences from the preferences menu (the gear icon at the top of the Zotero window). To change the location where you store your pdfs to somewhere more useful, such as Dropbox, change the custom location for files under the general settings tab. You will probably want to create a new folder in your Dropbox to store your Zotero pdfs, rather than simply dumping them at the top of your Dropbox folder hierarchy. Do this first. Then, back in Zotfile preferences, click ‘Choose’ to browse to the folder you have just created. For example, for Dropbox on the Mac, the path would be /Users/[yourusername]/Dropbox/Zotero.
Now, as long as you select the same folder on every computer you use, Zotfile will move your pdfs to Dropbox, and Dropbox will synchronise the pdfs between your computers.3 Now, you can access all your Zotero readings on every computer you use, without having to shell out for Zotero storage.
- If you are family, you can thus get up to 5TB of storage (1TB per user). ↩
- Zotero’s storage, of course, subsidies development of the free app. If you don’t want to pay for Zotero storage, you can perhaps consider giving a donation to the Center for History and New Media http://chnm.gmu.edu/donate/ ↩
- Note that this path needn’t be the same – if you are working on both Windows and Mac, the path to your Dropbox folder will be very different. The important thing is to select the folder in Dropbox where you want to store your pdf library. ↩
🐘+ 🐌 = 😃
Recently, the awesome information management system, Devonthink has largely replaced Evernote as the home for my digital research material on the Mac. As I explained in an earlier post, there are various problems with using Evernote for research management, especially when your needs are more advanced (say, you’re an academic or lawyer) and your database is very large. While Evernote’s ability to capture information from the digital and physical world is unparalleled, beyond even a couple thousand notes it can be difficult to visualise your data and hence see the wood from the trees – however obsessive you are with organising your notebooks and tags. Evernote is great for sucking things in, but getting things out – physically, in terms of export, and conceptually, in terms of ideas – is much more difficult. Devonthink has various advantages for heavy lifters, including its support for multiple databases and indexing files outside your database. With its more granular search and advanced document management features, Devonthink is ideal for doing research, rather than simply amassing research material.
However, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. Evernote remains one of the most popular and widely supported note-taking apps out there, and it still plays an important role in my overall workflow – especially when it comes to managing my life, rather than my work. While Devonthink and Evernote share many of the same features, they’re aimed at different audiences: Evernote is a mass consumer product aimed at everyone, while Devonthink is a more specialist product aimed at people with more advanced information-management needs. With this in mind, let’s see how Devonthink and Evernote can complement each other in your digital research workflow.
Devonthink for large projects, Evernote for the smaller stuff
Devonthink is perfect for large projects where you will be collecting lots of related documents, and organisation is key. For example, if you are an academic, you can have a database for each of your major research projects. If you are a lawyer, you could have a database for each of your cases. By setting up a database for every large project, you can avoid your database becoming cluttered with irrelevant material. Hierarchical folders, smart folders (essentially, saved searches), tags, and Devonthink’s auto classify and auto group features ensure that your material is organised exactly how you want it, and you can retrieve relevant documents very easily. Labels and marks also allow you to flag documents in various ways – important, to do, read, and so on.
That said, Evernote is ideal for a lot of the miscellaneous ‘stuff’ we amass over our day. Web clippings, Word documents, emails, snippets of text – these are the things that can easily bog your database down and make using it a messy, unpleasant experience. In Devonthink, you could easily make a ‘personal’ or ‘miscellaneous’ database to store this random stuff. But Evernote is fundamentally designed to be an ‘everything bucket’ – dump all this stuff in there, and use search to find what you need.
Devonthink for home, Evernote for when you’re on the go
By far the best document management experience is Devonthink Pro Office on the Mac. Its iOS counterpart, Devonthink To Go (DTG), however has come on leaps and bounds in recent months and is now a viable replacement for Evernote on your tablet or phone. Among its various features, you can organise your database, clip or import material using the iOS share sheet, and create various documents from scratch. DTG can now also act as a document provider, so you don’t have to copy files across to apps such as PDFpen. Sync is quick, secure, and entirely optional. You can use Dropbox, Box, or even your home wifi to synchronise your databases. You have complete control over how you choose to transfer your data.
Despite these improvements, Evernote is still a richer and more seamless experience when you’re out and about. Evernote was built for synchronisation from the ground up, so there’s no fiddly set-up to get it going. Evernote on iOS is also much more fully-featured than DTG and has integrations with a host of services, from to-do apps to read-it-later services (ITTT makes it super easy to set up such connections if formal integrations aren’t available). If you need to quickly access documents on the go, or mark them up, Evernote is generally a good option. When I go abroad for work, and rely on iOS devices, I often put documents in Evernote (using the option to make notebooks offline) so I can easily access and edit them.
Devonthink for work, Evernote for life
While there’s nothing stopping you from putting everything (including the kitchen sink) in Devonthink, I find that doing so defeats its purpose. As I’ve mentioned, Devonthink is a way to curate and visualise your most important material, not to simply store it. With its myriad organisation options, Devonthink generally lends itself to work purposes, or major projects where such organisation is necessary, simply to make sense of it all. Evernote, on the other hand, is much more suited to capturing the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life – recipes, reminders, travel itineraries, interesting articles, and so on. Evernote is second to none when it comes to capturing material – it’s what comes after where it falls short.
Evernote for Evernote-specific features
Another reason advanced users might want to keep Evernote in their applications folder (and keep paying a yearly subscription to Evernote Premium) is to take advantage of its powerful features. To date, alternative apps haven’t been able to straightforwardly replicate Evernote’s incredible ability to automatically OCR text, or recognise handwriting. Devonthink Pro Office includes OCR, but it is not automatic (except for incoming scans). Devonthink also can’t recognise handwriting, and you can’t directly email documents into your Devonthink inbox (although Devonthink Pro Office can import them). Historians, for example, might appreciate Evernote’s ability to automatically recognise text in photographs you’ve taken in archives. For this reason, and more, it’s worth keeping Evernote in your research workflow, while the vast bulk of your research material, especially pdfs, could go in Devonthink. These days, I tend to use Evernote as a tool, rather than an endless pit to store all my data.
Moving between Devonthink and Evernote
If you want to move data from Devonthink to Evernote, doing so is straightforward. Devonthink includes an option to import notes from your Evernote notebooks as standalone documents in your Devonthink databases. Attachments to your Evernote notes will be imported in their original format (.jpg, .pdf, .rtf etc), while the notes themselves will usually be imported as formatted notes (html).
Importing from Devonthink to Evernote is as simple as dragging documents from your Devonthink database onto the Evernote icon in your dock. Since Devonthink preserves the format of your original documents, exporting is not something you need to worry about.
Stick to Evernote
For many readers, the advanced organisation, synchronisation and sorting options of Devonthink Pro Office is probably complete overkill. If you have a very small Evernote database (say, a few hundred or couple thousand notes), the limited organisation options of Evernote might be perfectly adequate for your needs. The problem, as I’ve previously mentioned, is one of scalability. When your database grows, to contain thousands , even tens of thousands of notes, it can be extremely difficult to find certain documents, and visualise your data. So, if you are an information worker, I suggest you give Devonthink a try. Devontechnologies has an extremely reasonable 150-hour real-time trial, so you can try without commitment.
As this post has hopefully demonstrated, using Devonthink and Evernote is not necessarily an either/or imposition. By carefully choosing where you put your data, you can easily have the best of both worlds: Evernote’s convenience and simplicity, and Devonthink’s power and flexibility.