Reading professional journal articles on the iPad

I’ve been able to read the New York Times on my iPad for years, so I suspected that it was only a matter of time (and more time… and still more time…) before I’d be able to read and process professional journal articles on it as well. After fiddling around with a dozen or so different apps, each of which has its own issues, I’ve finally come up with an efficient workflow that utilizes the iPad to its best advantage. I describe it below in the hopes that I can save you the time and effort of uncovering it yourself.

zotero_512x512x32First, you should get a free Zotero account. Zotero is a cloud-based bibliography manager. It’s free (up to a certain amount of storage, after which there’s a monthly charge), the application is smart, and it exports bibliographies into other formats, like BibTeX. There is also an app for your desktop or laptop. Your online Zotero library will be where all of your citations and marked-up PDFs end up.


The next step is to install PaperShip. Papership is an iPad interface to your Zotero account. It’s efficient, it syncs automatically, and most important, it can usually extract the citation information from a PDF that you import to it. (See update note below!!!)


unnamedNext, purchase BrowZine. BrowZine is the breakthrough app that makes all of this possible. It lets you set up a library of journals that you read regularly. When you open the app it tunnels through all of your library’s authentication windows to figure out which of those journals has new articles. You can read them immediately or save them for later. This is fantastic! And the ThirdIron support team is incredibly helpful if you run into problems.

app-icon-632-mzl.vchtrhihThe last app to purchase and install, if you haven’t already, is iAnnotate. This is my favorite app for marking up PDFs. As my students well know, it can capture voice annotations as well as jotted marginal notes. It’s indispensable for taking notes and highlighting key passages on papers, dissertation chapters, journal articles, what have you.


Once these four things are in place, the workflow looks something like this:

  1. Start BrowZine and set it up with your library sign-in information. Then add journals to your virtual “bookshelf.” A count of new articles will appear over each journal.
  2. Save interesting articles for later in BrowZine, or send them from BrowZine to iAnnotate.
  3. Mark key passages, record reactions, etc. in iAnnotate.
  4. Send file from iAnnotate to Papership,* which should capture bibliographic information and save both the citation and the PDF to your Zotero library.
  5. Return to BrowZine and select another article.

That’s it. Your annotated PDFs will automatically be saved in your Zotero library, where you can refer to them months or years later. And it’s all as quick as the blink of an eye.

Addendum: I forgot to note that Papership stores your files in an “inbox” rather than in your Zotero library. To move an item from the inbox to a folder in your library, use your finger or stylus to drag the item to the left until an option appears to copy or move the item. Then simply select the folder to which you’d like to move it.

UPDATE: I’ve discovered what looks like a nasty bug in Papership: bibliographic entries that are imported to its Inbox don’t appear in your Zotero library, and when you delete these entries there is no impact on your Zotero library. But papers imported to your Zotero library show up, for some reason, in your Papership Inbox, and when you delete these entries to get them out of your inbox, they are also deleted from your Zotero library. I’ve just permanently deleted a few dozen entries from my library by trying to get all of the clutter out of my Papership inbox. For the moment, until Shazino can get Papership to stop doing this, I’ll be using a different method for getting annotated PDFs into my Zotero library.

Specifically, for the moment I’m exporting from Browzine directly to my Zotero library, switching to an app called ZotPad, opening the PDF in Zotpad, exporting to iAnnotate, marking up, re-exporting to ZotPad, and saving. It’s a clunkier workflow, but it avoids Papership’s Inbox issues.

*Note: The command for sending a file from iAnnotate to another program is not immediately obvious. This is how you do it: Hold your finger or stylus down on the name tab at the top of the document until a list of commands pop up. Select “Share.” Another list of commands will then pop up. Select “Open in…” and choose the target application.

4 thoughts on “Reading professional journal articles on the iPad

  • Thanks for this great review!
    Annotations are also available from PaperShip app (highlights are Free, other annotations for $4.99 in-app purchase).
    It allows to streamline the annotation process 🙂
    PaperShip team

  • An alternative for Zotero is Mendeley, which monitors whichever map you save your pdfs in, extracts citation info from the PDFs and puts it in the library. Handy as well. And yes, iAnnotate is great. I will definitely check out Browzine. Thanks for the tips!

    1. I started out using Mendeley, actually, but I switched to Zotero once I heard that Mendeley had been bought by Elsevier. Elsevier’s name alone is enough to make academic librarians turn pale. I don’t really know what Elsevier has in store for Mendeley, but I figured I’d hedge my bets. YMMV….

  • This is REALLY, REALLY helpful! I am an old codger who has resisted getting a tablet because, well, because i like writing on paper. But I need to come into something like the 1980s technology-wise. So, you are inviting me in to the 21st C in what looks to be a rather painless way. THANKS!

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