Reviewing literature on the go

I'm writing this while sitting at a campsite enjoying a short lull in all the noise associates with children playing and dogs barking. One of my hopes on this trip was to get some reading done. But the process of reviewing literature requires more than just reading (at least it does for me). It involves annotating the articles as I read, and then capturing both my annotations and my general reflections in a summary soon after I finish reading the article. If I wait too long after reading before summarizing, I risk loosing my thoughts.

At home, my process involves reading and annotating the article on my iPad, and then using my computer to write my summary and transfer key quotes into my literature review document. For this trip, I've had to change my process such that most of it can be done only on my iPad. Here is what I've come up with.

To achieve this task I use the following:

  • iPad (of course)
  • iAnnotate application (~$10). This allows me to mark-up PDF documents. See my previous blog post on using iAnnotate to mark up PDFs.
  • Stylus. I am currently using a ~$15 Targus stylus that I bought at Best Buy. The quality and availability of styli has improved dramatically over the last year. Now you can choose whatever stylus you want. It doesn't really matter which one anymore. You just need to think of writing with a marker, rather than writing with a pen.
  • Keyboard. I can't type very well with the onscreen keyboard, and frankly, I like the extra screen real-estate when I'm using an external keyboard. I have an original Logitech keyboard-case by Zagg for the iPad 2. Logitech has a nice new one out that has a better form factor as it has smoother edges and takes advantage of the magnetic edge of the iPad 2 and new iPad. If I were buying one today, I'd get the new one but for now, I can't justify the additional cost (about ~$125).
  • Evernote with Premium subscription ($45/year). I use Evernote to synchronize my notes between my computer and my mobile devices. I also like it as a notebook for storing random ideas, as it is fully indexed. They even index my handwriting and audio attachments, such that I can search and find my notes when I'm looking for them. The premium subscription isn't strictly necessary, it just allows me to keep copies of offline notebooks on my mobile devices. This feature used to be free, but now requires the subscription. I can really complain, as I've been using the free service for several years now, and they need to make money somehow. I have two notebooks in Evernote that I use for my research, one for field notes, and another for literature review notes.

The process I use for reviewing literature is:

  1. On my computer, I find all the articles I think I will want to read. I haven't found a great way to grab and organize PDFs on my iPad directly – largely because I still store my master annotated articles on my computer. So, it is easier for me to find the articles on my computer and pre-load them on my iPad.
  2. Load articles onto iPad using Dropbox and iAnnotate. I have iAnnotate configured to synchronize with dropbox. Before leaving home, I download all the articles I think I'll want to read directly onto my iPad. This means that when I don't have Internet access, I can still work.
  3. Read and annotate article with iAnnotate and my stylus (see my previous blogpost).
  4. In Evernote, create a new note with the same title as the document I'm reviewing. With my keyboard, I can write my summary comments regarding the article. Then, I can use the magic four-finger swipe to move to the open article in iAnnotate, and copy the key quotes. I then paste them into my Evernote note. The keyboard makes this process a little easier, as it has keys for select, cut, and paste.
  5. When I'm connected, I can synchronize the marked-up PDF in iAnnotate, and my notes in Evernote. So all my information is available to me on my computer when I write, as I do most of my formal article writing on my computer (at least for now).

I have to say, that I wasn't so sure I was going to be able to do my literature review notes while on the road, so I'm quite pleased at how easy it turned out to be. Traveling without my computer is certainly challenging me to use my iPad for many more purposes than I do at home.


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