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 mobilereads.com, 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.
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