I was too quick to judge the program Highlights. I gave Highlights a second chance, and although not perfect, the app is slowly winning me over. Highlights has greatly sped up the extraction of information from my reading.

First a little background. I use Papers for my PDF and bibliographic management. I’ve written about how I extract highlights and annotations into individual files along with their relevant references. The reason to go to this trouble is to enable Devonthink’s artificial intelligence. The Devonthink AI uses word count to find related information in other files. I use this method extensively in my writing of grants and manuscripts. With my previous method, I found by adding references to each annotation (thus similar words) I was interfering with Devonthink’s ability to find relevant information. In order to improve Devonthink’s accuracy, I stopped adding references to each individual annotation. Instead, I merely include a Papers Link back to the original file.

Highlights shows the annotations you make in the app’s right-hand column. A pop-up interface within Highlights allows you to make comments, underline , change colors, etc. The killer feature of Highlights is single-command extraction of each annotation / comment to its own file. This feature allows me to extract highlights (and metadata) without having to invoke my Keyboard Maestro macros. When the data is extracted into Devonthink, the individual files are in Markdown. This makes the extracted information easy to view and edit.

Although I’m more enthusiastic about Highlights, there are several quirks you should understand:

  1. When Highlights explodes your annotations into individual files, it prepends the original file’s name. If you use Highlights from within Papers (e.g. selecting Highlights as your PDF reader of choice from within Papers) you will end up with a ridiculous, machine based title in your metadata. This is not Highlights fault. The use of non-intuitive file names is one of my pet peeves about Papers. The workaround is to export a copy of the PDF to your Desktop and then launch the exported file using Highlights. Using this method, the author’s name and the title of the manuscript along with the year of publication are all prepended to each markdown file.
  2. After reading and highlighting, I edit the markdown headers in Highlights (choosing the edit tab in the annotations window). I erase all but the primary author’s name and then add the Paper’s Citation and a Papers Link back to original file (copied from Paper’s Edit Menu). There is another quirk here. In Highlights Edit Mode, if you don’t leave a space between the markdown coding and the information you add, your file will be reset back to its original state, erasing your modifications.
  3. Highlights has the ability to automatically look up DOI numbers. When it works, it’s great. It takes a single click to import a reference from the bibliography into your Paper’s Database. Unfortunately, this feature is flaky, especially with longer manuscripts. I often have to revert to my Launchbar scripts to capture the bibliographic information I need.

Once I’ve added the metadata I want to the master annotation file (and collected the references of interest), from within Highlights, I choose Export >> Devonthink. Highlights creates individual markdown files for each of the annotations. Each individual file contains the master file’s metadata. The data is copied to my Devonthink Global Inbox. I move the folder from the Devonthink Inbox to my Desktop and from there to my Annotations Folder using Launchbar.

Highlights has significantly sped up the time it takes to process a manuscript. Using this method, I’m also having greater success with the “See Also” feature of Devonthink. I hope it works for you too.

5 Responses to Highlights.app Redux

  1. rickla says:

    “With my previous method, I found by adding references to each annotation (thus similar words) I was interfering with Devonthink’s ability to find relevant information.”

    It gave me a bit of a shock to read that. I’ve always added fulltext references as well as a Sente link at the foot of each extracted note, in case I moved computers and the links stopped working. Do you think adding fulltext references in the Spotlight comments field in DevonThink would be OK?

  2. dfay says:

    I had stayed away from Highlights because of negative reviews post-Sierra — do you think the Sierra PDFKit repairs have made a difference? The last update on the app is still Sept 16

    • I haven’t had any more problems with Highlights that I’ve had with other apps.

    • rickla says:

      I had all kinds of problems when I last tried it, such as it quitting unexpectedly, and Jeff’s experiences discouraged me from digging much deeper, even though I really wanted to like the app—I think the idea and the functionality are pretty amazing. Jeff’s rethink has persuaded me to give it another try.

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