Digitalising your academic literature: tablets versus e-ink

Tired of those piles of paper that are growing on your desk? More and more researchers are letting go of paper and going digital with their academic articles and literature notes. For me, one of the best things about getting an iPad was getting rid of the tall stacks of journal articles in my office. The advantages of digitalising my research library have included:

  • It’s now extremely easy to find what I want, when I want it. Instead of working my way through thematically organised piles (which gradually became less and less organised…), I now do a quick search on author, title or keyword to find the file I need.

  • I always have all my literature with me. I no longer find myself in situations where that article with notes that I needed to take a quick look at is lying in the office, while I’m working at home. 

  • Digitalisation makes it easier to organise my literature. It’s easy to set up folders and subfolders for particular themes and sub themes. At the same time, I can quickly organise my literature by author, publication date, key word, or journal name. Use of tagging also solves an issue that is important to how I work: I can assign a given article to more than one thematic group. 


Over at, there are regularly questions from academics about the best device for reading pdf files. Many request e-ink devices (such as Kindle Paperwhite) rather than tablets, as e-ink devices are generally considered easier on the eyes when you are reading for a longer period of time. The debate on e-ink versus LCD screens (which is what you find on tablets) has been going for a while, and if you google the topic you will find many articles debating whether the eye strain factor of LCD screens is ‘real’ or not. In practice, however, it is largely an issue of personal preference and what you feel comfortable working with. 

When it comes to dealing with academic literature, and journal articles in pdf format in particular, my own clear preference is for tablets rather than e-ink, and here is why:

  • On a decent tablet, scrolling and page rendering is very fast. This is extremely important to me, as I frequently go back and forth in a document to check a reference or to reread the data analysis in light of the concluding discussion, or I may quickly skim an article as part of an initial stage of a literature review. Doing this on an e-ink device would slow me down compared to working with paper – and I want my tools to make me more efficient, not to slow my performance. 

  • The annotation capacities on tablets are far superior – for example, with a good pdf annotation app such as iAnnotate (which I have written about here) or GoodReader, it is easy to distinguish by colour how some text relates to method, some to theory, and some to review findings, hand writing is much more accurate, you can insert blank pages for additional comments, and it’s very easy to export your annotations. 

  • On a tablet, you can easily transfer an annotated pdf to the notebook of your choice, such as Evernote or Circus Ponies Notebooks (which I have written about here and here). It therefore makes it very easy to consolidate the annotated pdf and your literature notes, if you keep the latter in a separate location from your pdf library. 

  • Tablets come with advanced solutions for pdf management that are designed for research, such as Sente, Papers, Bookends or Mendeley. In my opinion, having a strong workflow for managing literature is key when you do research, especially when you are dealing with a few thousand pdfs or more.

  • Finally, I tried e-ink and it was a pain. Now, just to clarify, I love e-ink for recreational reading and use it extensively for epub and other e-book formats – but I don’t believe current e-ink devices were designed for pdf reading (with a couple of exceptions such as the Kindle DX), and they certainly weren’t designed to support serious research activity. For this reason, using e-ink devices to read pdfs will often entail cropping and reflowing and other adjustments, and even then it might not come out very well. When I work with literature, I want to be able to just open the document and get on with my work, rather than be distracted by the tool itself. 

So, that’s my take on e-ink versus tablets. Personally, I use Bookends, iAnnotate and GoodReader on my iPad – they meet all my needs for organising, reading and marking up pdf files, and exporting highlights and annotations. I can read comfortably on my iPad for long periods of time, as long as I adjust the screen to a low setting of brightness, and find it much better for reading than a laptop/desktop. However, as with many other things this comes down to preference, so if you have good experiences using e-ink, please let us know in the comments section. 


Related posts on this blog:

iAnnotate: a Swiss army knife for marking up articles, paper drafts and data

Managing your research literature: Sente versus Bookends

Academic note taking: Circus Ponies Notebooks versus Evernote


This entry was posted in iPad, literature review, note taking, pdf annotation, productivity, workflows and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Digitalising your academic literature: tablets versus e-ink

  1. Petry says:

    Great post. That’s something that I’ve considered a lot.
    After you scan your texts do you crop them? I’ve been using briss for that and I love it. It is a very simple but powerful software.
    Tips on how to process your PDFs would be very welcome.

    • macademise says:

      Thanks for the tip on Briss. I hadn’t heard of that before, but have downloaded it now. I work primarily with journal articles downloaded from the internet, which I don’t feel a need to crop. So far, I haven’t scanned any books – I might do some of that before my next research stay abroad, though. So basically, my processing of PDFs is very simple – I use my mac to download PDF files to Bookends, then sync with my iPad, and later read and mark them up using iAnnotate or GoodReader. If I were using an iPad mini, perhaps I would feel the need for more processing, but 99% of the time I find that the full size iPad retina screen provides me with crisp and easy to read pages.

      • Petry says:

        Thanks for the response. I’ve been working a lot with scanned files (from photocopies and from books) so there’s a huge need to crop the borders. Most of the time the books are photocopied with two pages in one A4 page, so cropping it makes it better for reading.
        I’ve been using the first iPad for reading. I’ll buy a new one in December. Do you have any tips or considerations between the mini and the retina?

        • macademise says:

          That makes a lot of sense. Regarding the mini, I’ve chosen to stay with my larger iPad with retina screen, partially because I find the current iPad mini under-spec’ed, partially because I wanted the larger screen, and partially because I wasn’t turning back after getting used to the retina screen quality. PDFs are quite crisp and nice with the retina resolution. If the new mini comes with a retina screen, I would have to test it out with some pdf files to see how I feel about it. The portability and the weight is a plus, but I think I just prefer the larger screen of my current iPad. I don’t want to have to zoom and pinch a lot, I just want to open the file and get to work without the tool distracting me. This is very much down to personal preference, though. There’s a thread on macrumors here where you’ll get some different perspectives on reading scientific papers on the mini:

  2. FBLR says:

    Thanks for your post.
    Do you recommend a specific tablet ?

    • macademise says:

      I use an iPad (in conjunction with GoodReader and Bookends to organise and mark up pdfs), and this works very well for me. I haven’t tried any android tablets, so unfortunately I can’t make any comparative remarks.

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