Annotating PDFs on iPad with Papers Touch (Videos)

Papers for iPadAnnotating journal articles is one of the top reasons why people in university buy an iPad. But how do you find a good annotation app, without spending a ton of money upfront?

In this mini-series on reading and annotating PDFs, previous posts have suggested that PDF management systems are great for academics who want to integrate their laptop/desktop computer and their iPad in a coherent read-write-cite workflow. The currently best PDF management solutions are Sente for Mac and Papers for Mac.  This posts reviews Papers’ companion app: Papers Touch for iPad. Its an expensive app, so I made four videos that will give you as much first-hand experience as you can get for free! 

Please don’t kill me over the quality of the videos. It is my first try editing videos, and I only had my iPhone 4 camera lying around to shoot the video with.


The Papers ecosystem

Papers Touch ($15, AppStore link) lets you read and annotate your PDFs, and you can also add new PDFs to your library. It is an iOS universal app, which means that it will also run on your iPhone and iPod touch without any extra costs. Not sure why you would want to read your papers on such a small screen, but it is nice to have I guess.

In my opinion, you best take care of your library through the Mac version of your PDF ecosystem, so I am not going into any detail here.

Syncing with your Mac is relatively easy and fast. Just be sure that your Mac and iPad are connected to the same wireless network and that you have enabled syncing in the  settings of the iPad app.

Important: If you are still rocking Papers 1.x, you won’t be able to sync your annotations from the iPad to your Mac. For this, you need the Mac version 2.1 or higher.


Organizing your library

The main way to navigate your library is via manual collections. The good news is that Papers syncs all manual collections you want it to. However, from then on Papers’ organizing features are rudimentary: You cannot fold / unfold collections, you cannot create new smart collections, and you cannot nest manual collections into each other.

As you can see in the video, I am having a lot of collections. Not being able to collapse and unfold collections makes navigating my library a rather difficult task.


Rating and sharing articles

Once you have found the article you have been looking for, you can do a couple of things with it. You can rate it, flag it, share it via email or twitter, bookmark it, and add it to collections.

One nice thing of Papers is that it also allows you to add general notes to any article. You can access all of these functions from the main tool bar on the left side of the screen.


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Reading and Annotating

Okay, so here comes the most important part why you could give Papers a chance to be the centerpiece of your read-write-cite workflow.

You can read an article either through the toolbar or by simply swiping from one page to the next. Papers Touch renders each page very fast – even on my first generation iPad!

But the best part comes with the annotation workflow, which is (almost) best of class when it comes to highlighting text. You simply tap and hold on the text you want to highlight. After a second or so, you can swipe your finger to select the rest of the text. Once you release your finger, a floating menu offers you the chance to copy, highlight, and to make a note.

You can change the color of the highlighted passage by tapping on an already highlighted part. Papers will remember what color you have used last time and will adjust its default accordingly.

In my opinion, Papers’ highlighting workflow is top-shelf, second only to the highlighting workflow in the new iBooks textbooks. Maybe Papers could be tweaked a little so that the highlighting starts with almost no delay after your first tap, and the color selection could be also integrated into the highlighting action. But otherwise, Papers offers you a great highlighting workflow that seems more polished than what you can get at most other places.


Making notes

Although Papers’ highlighting mode falls a very short distance away from being awesome, the way how notes are handled in Papers is a rather large disappointment.

I don’t really like the little pins that are used to signal a note – only voodoo priests stick needles into a journal article! In addition to this design flaw, there is no way to move a note around, and there is no designated place where all notes of the document are displayed next to each other.


What else is missing?

The way how notes are handled in Papers Touch (not movable, lack of overview plane) was the biggest disappointment for me when I began writing this post. But once I thought about it a little longer, I noticed that keywords are also missing in Papers Touch. In the Mac version of Papers you can add keywords to your articles. However, I haven’t found a way to add keywords in the iPad app.

Again, this speaks to Papers’ preference for manual collections (which keeps the learning curve flat); however, the way in which collections are treated (or better: not treated) in Papers Touch makes it difficult to browse through a library that has many collections, especially when these collections are nested into a hierarchy.

If manual collections are your thing, then Papers is a good fit for you. Papers has a great annotation workflow on their iPad app, and through its fast rendering of the PDF pages it makes reading a really intuitive experience on the iPad.

If you haven’t done yet, check out the videos in this post. They give you a much better understanding of the look and feel of Papers Touch.

To my knowledge, this is the most in-depth video review of Papers Touch. So if you know somebody who is wondering about whether Papers for iPad is worth the 15 bucks, why not letting this person (or the whole wide world) know about this post? You can use the sharing buttons below.

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  1. Brian says:

    Thanks for this. Do you know whether papers or sente works with legal databases. In particular HeinOnline?

  2. oo1on says:

    Hi Jo !!!

    Thanks for the good work and this perfect blog, i’m a fan :p

    I’m comming here desperated … I must be dumb but I can’t find the “search within a pdf” field or function in papers for ipad ?! There is something i am missing there … Or is it possible that this function is absent ?!

    Thanks for your lights :)

    • Jo says:

      Thanks for the praise :-)

      I think it is absent. You can search papers that contain a particular word in the text, but that’s it then. I didn’t find a way to actually have all instances of the word highlighted in the text, as you would expect from its Mac version.

      Good find! I never checked that before. Your best bet is to contact the developers and tell them that you would like to see that feature.

      • oo1on says:

        Hi Jo !

        Ok, I will ! It seams quite incredible to me that they didn’t think about this “search” field :s Another features that seems to be missing is the “watch folder” feature present in Mendeley that allows you do just drop your newly added pdf to your local or dropbox folder and have it automatically added toyour database. I’ll ask them for this too ! To bad that the Mendeley for Ipad sucks …. I liked the desktop features !

        (Jo and other reading …) In your workflow with Papers desktop and Ipad how do you manage to add your newly adquired publications ? Do you have a “incoming” folder that you will scan weekly with papers then distribute the pdf in their respective folders or … I dont know ?! I’m not shure to be very clear … But now that i havean ipad i would really like to integrate itnicely in my bibliographical workflow i had previously … Briefly :
        The needed paper is donwloaded , the pdf is given the title of the paper, in a “papers” folder on dropbox containing various subfolders relative to the researsh thema. This “papers” folder is scanned automatically by Mendeley atstartup and the whole Mendely bibliography is automatically exported to a single .bib file (i use then this unique bibfile within my latex document)

        Ok , i guess their is not ONE unique way to work … But I would love to have some returns on others peaople way of working :)

        Best regards to all,


        • Jo says:

          I my opinion, it makes most sense to pair the iPad and Mac versions of Papers (or Sente). I typically download a paper and throw it directly in the Mac version. This automatically adds the meta data such as title and authors (in most ases anyway). I also door f the organization of papers on the Mac. All that ten gets synced with the iPad.

          So no Dropbox for me, I am saving that space for other stuff.

          Hope that answers your question?

  3. Shen says:

    Do you think it proper to use Papers for iPad as books collection or library rather than papers or short essays. I have many books in PDF and all consisting in hundreds of pages, I was wondering can I manage them in Papers for iPad.
    One of my concerning is that such book PDFs may consume too much battery power. I hope you can give me some opinions and your experience, thank you!
    (By the way, I really love your blog and articles, they help me so much in making my iPad as my studying partner!)

    • Jo says:

      Hey Shen,
      I would say it depends on the size of the ebook file and on the iPad you are having. If the file size is very large (several MB) and you are rocking a first-gen iPad, browsing through the pages might be very slow due to processor constrains. But if the size is small and you have a newer iPad, I don’t expect many issues. The length of the document or how much you fill up the flash storage of your iPad does not really affect the battery drain, so you will be okay on that front.

  4. Joo Yoon Chung says:

    Hey Jo, thanks for the review of Papers for iPad, and all of your other reviews and posts. I’m curious what your workflow is right now? I recently got an iPad and have been trying to figure out how to make the most of it in support of my dissertation writing (God, that was an awkward sentence!). All the best!

    • Jo says:

      Hi Joo (I like your name!),

      I am glad you find academiPad helpful. I am planning to write about my own workflow in a future post (and I welcome others who want to share theirs as well). This is way too much info for a comment – sorry.

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