Research Workflow with an iPad: Research and Bibliographic Database 2/3

Last time I wrote about the advantages of using digital texts for research, focussing primarily on reading and annotating digital texts using an iPad/tablet/Kindle. Today I discuss my workflow for storing annotated texts and including them in a research/bibliographic database. What works for me in this workflow is: 1) quick search, 2) quick access, 3) portability, and 4) ability to copy/paste quotes rather than re-type. There are several options available to achieve these benefits. Below I outline the method I use and the reasons why.

Storing Readings

There are a couple of good reasons to get as many of your research sources as possible into electronic format:

  • Easily searchable

  • Portable

  • Easier to find what you are looking for

  • If in PDF format, they should have a long life and will not become obsolete

  • All research sources centrally located

I still have many books that are not in digital format, and I don’t plan to repurchase them or scan them. However, if I am going back to read a text again in its entirety or need to do more detailed searches on texts I have already read, I will get an electronic copy. If I do not have an electronic copy, I make sure that there is an entry in my bibliographical database (more on that below).

At this point, I store my electronic sources in two ‘cloud’ services, as they both offer different benefits (at least at this point). It’s not ideal, and hopefully this will change in the future. Here’s a bit about them:


I have a 100GB subscription to Dropbox. It syncs very well with other apps and services, and the iPad client works very well. It has a good search, and a nice scroll bar for scanning long documents. If I plan to read anything in more detail and annotate it, I just open it in Goodreader.

Google Drive

I tried out a Google Drive subscription. There were a couple drawbacks, the biggest being that the Mac client seemed to take up lots of CPU. Integration with iPad also was not as strong, so that is why I chose the more expensive Dropbox.

I do still place a copy of most of my articles into my free Google Drive account, though, because it offers one things Dropbox does not: OCR on PDFs that are images. This means that you can search for text in PDFs that are images of text. The web interface is very usable and every search is a full text search (in contrast with Dropbox, which is title only).

Currently I get articles on Drive either by drag and drop on the web interface or by temporarily firing up the Drive client on Mac. I really should set up a Mac automator action that automatically copies any new PDFs to both folders, but I’ve not done that yet as it would also require me to continue to run the Google Drive client and eat up CPU.

Research Database / Bibliography Manager

There are lots of decent bibliography managers out there. When choosing a manager, you should ask what you plan to use it for. I use my database for more than generating bibliographies. For each of my sources I also include summaries, comments, and key quotes (exported from the PDF as explained last time). For me, there are four keys to a good bibliography manager:

  1. search speed/flexibility

  2. option for a summary/abstract/review field

  3. ability to export to plaintext/html/latex format for future-proofing

  4. ability to generate bibliographies in many formats.

Some services offer the ability to link a PDF to the citation, and even though I currently can I don’t use this currently because I like my Dropbox process. Several of the online based services do not include #2 and/or #3.

For a while (actually, all the way through my PhD) I used Jabref, a perfectly useable open source database manager. There were, however, three reasons that I eventually found another solution:

  1. The database was slowing down when I started approaching 800 sources (I am significantly over that now).

  2. You can generate any sort of citation style, but to do so often required some fiddling around with code.

  3. The ability to access and search my research database on an iPad was possible, but not straightforward.

Due to these reason I switched to Sonny Software’s Bookends. It does everything that I need and syncs very nicely with the iPad companion app. Often I have moments when I think of a great quote from something I have read, but have absolutely no clue where I read it. Having access to my entire database on iPad, iPod, and computer means that I can more easily track down the source of the quote!

Next time: academic writing on an ipad.


2 thoughts on “Research Workflow with an iPad: Research and Bibliographic Database 2/3

  1. Reader2 says:

    Do you think you could use Bookends if you just had an iPad and no Mac? I’m helping a friend figure out whether she can return to grad school with just an iPad and an external keyboard, or whether a laptop/desktop is necessary.

    1. The iPad app for Bookends is very much a companion app. It works very well as a bibliographic database, but cannot do more advanced things like generate bibliographies and manage citations. Overall, I think it is possible to do at least 90% of things on an iPad, but I still find myself finishing complex documents on my laptop. Having Word on iPad helps, but for more complex documents (like a scholarly article, book chapter, or grad thesis) sometimes a laptop is needed. Smaller essays, however, could easily be done completely on an iPad. Hope that helps!

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