Research Workflow with an iPad: Reading 1/3

Last summer I began what I hoped would be a ‘series’ of posts on my research workflow. A busier than expected semester (which seems to describe all semesters!) prevented me from continuing this series, so instead I’m doing a three part series on research workflow using the iPad. Part one is on reading, part two on maintaining a bibliographic/research database, and part three on writing.

Over the semester my iPad has become my device of preference for research. I have not even brought my laptop to the university in the past few months. I also use it in meetings, in the classroom for lecturing, for marking, and to update my website. Here I will limit to discussing research workflow. Note that most of this research workflow can be undertaken with an Android tablet, as most apps are also available on that platform. I’ve not used an Android device, so am unable to comment on the specific differences here.


Aside from my applied research (performance/sound installations), my research mostly involves reading and writing. I really like physical books, but my preference now is to do all of my reading in electronic format, ideally with a PDF with embedded text or OCR. My first post on this blog explored the benefits and drawbacks of reading on an iPad. I still agree with most of what I wrote then, so here I’ll talk about specific tools I use for reading and getting notes and highlighted text into my bibliography/research database.


Goodreader is my main tool for reading and annotating PDFs. iAnnotate PDF also works well (I’m going to try it out for paperless grading this semester with its handy stamp tools. UPDATE: tried it out for marking. It works fine, but I went back to Goodreader after a couple days as I like the file management workflow better), but I’ve gotten used to and like the Goodreader interface. I keep a folder in my Dropbox account (shameless referral link) filled with all of my ‘to read’ articles. Goodreader syncs that folder to the iPad.

When I open an article to read, the first thing I do is use the tool to crop the margins so that the text fills the screen. These crops do not change the file itself, but are applied to viewing all pages in the document. Then I turn on the highlight tool. All menus disappear except the top right corner, which provides a box to change tools or to turn pages. To highlight, simply run your finger across the text. If I need to make a note, I just change tools.

Once I have read the article, I choose ‘email summary’ from the menu at the bottom. This scans the document for any text I have highlighted and notes I have made puts it in an email. I usually just email it to myself and then add the text into my bibliographical database later. After that, I move the article out of my ‘to read’ folder and into another folder. When I get the chance, I move it to my main research storage folder. More on storing and organizing PDFs next time.


The Kindle app works very well. It syncs how far you have read across devices and is easy to highlight. To highlight, just hold your finger in place momentarily where you want to begin highlighting and drag to where you want to complete. It is as easy as working with Goodreader. Your annotations can be accessed from your Kindle management website on a page called ‘your highlights’. It updates very quickly. I just copy the text from that page and paste it into my bibliographic database.

Kindle does have a couple downsides:

  • Not enough books have real page numbers. That makes citations more difficult. Too often I find myself having to use google books to track down a real page number.
  • There are too many extra words included when copying your highlights from the website into your database. I put an example of this in another post.
  • Despite paying similar prices to physical books, Amazon has set things up in a way where they are just lending you access to the book. I’m a big proponent of digital legacy, and I think there is little chance I’ll be able to open my Kindle books 25 years from now. That means the book will need to be repurchased, and the highlights will be lost. However, the convenience might be worth it. (And if you look, you can find ways to convert Kindle format to a DRM free PDF for your own digital legacy, bearing in mind that in most places it is prohibited by law to do so).
  • The main drawback of reading with a tablet is that you spend more of your life looking at a backlit screen, which is not ideal. I’m thinking about picking up a Kindle Paperwhite when they become available in Canada so at least some of my reading can be done on an e-ink screen (the light in this one is frontlit, not backlit). This one has a touch screen for (relatively easy) highlighting, whereas the other Kindles are an absolute pain to highlight text with, and competing products like the Kobo are useless for academics. UPDATE: I now have a Paperwhite and have used it on a conference trip, read a couple of books, and started using it to read and markup a book manuscript for editing. Pros: it is easier on the eyes, and is lighter and smaller for long reading sessions and reading on the plane/train. Highlighting is easy enough. Cons: typing notes is not very responsive. I’m just using one letter as a reminder when adding editing notes.

Next time: Research and Bibliographic Database


3 thoughts on “Research Workflow with an iPad: Reading 1/3

  1. Jason says:

    I would be interested in seeing how you interface with students digitally in and out of the classroom. At the elementary level we have started using Edmodo with great success as it allows for quizzes, assignments, polls and surveys with relative ease for even beginner users. It also includes a mark book (which often self-marks depending on the task assigned) and allows for constant teacher-student feedback. Thanks for pushing us fellow teachers to leave the laptops at home!

    1. Jason, thanks for your comments. I’m dealing with tech and research in these posts, but maybe I should do another set of posts on tech and interacting with students! Here’s my short answer: when possible, I like a low-tech classroom based on discussion and interaction. As you can see on my website, I’ve taken to posting many things online rather than handing them out. That way there is no excuse to lose them! I’ve also tried to go paperless in grading. Good for the environment, and it also means there is a better chance that students can read my comments 🙂

      1. Jason says:

        Thanks Jeff for your insightful responses. Tech can never replace direct communication, nor displace good ‘ol research. It truly is a fabulous tool, however, to augment the reach of both!

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