Reading scientific papers as PDFs is a major part of being an academic. Professors, postdocs, grad students and undergraduates end up working with PDFs, making notes, and then using those notes to write a manuscript or paper. Although there are lots of great PDF viewers and reference managers, I use Paperpile, which is cloud-based PDF manager and was originally designed to be a reference manager for Google Docs. It can sync all your PDFs with your Google Drive (so you can read them offline) and neatly integrates with Google Scholar and Chrome so that you can import references and PDFs from anywhere. It handles citations in Docs and in Word and has a beta app for iPad that is brilliant.
We use this in my lab all the time. It’s a paid app, but it is not very expensive, they have education pricing and as the lab PI, I just pay for a site license for all my trainees.
One of the best features is the notes-taking and annotation system. Like most PDF viewers, the built in PDF viewers lets you highlight, markup, and annotate PDFs with sticky notes. These annotations stay with the PDF and will sync across devices because it’s cloud based. Just like in Adobe or Apple Preview, you can highlight, add notes, use strike-thru, or even draw with a pencil. Paperpile organizes these well and makes it easy to navigate. And if you use the iPad app you can make notes there that will show up in the browser and notes in the browser will show up on the iPad. The icon on the upper right hides your notes.
Exporting and Sharing
If you’re reading along, taking notes and making highlights, you may want to share these with someone or use them in a manuscript (or even a manuscript review). There are several ways to do this.
Export the PDF
The File menu lets you print with or without annotations. If you want to send the PDF to someone as a clean PDF without your notes, that’s easy to do. Or it will save your notes in the new PDF.
The exported PDF opens in other PDF viewers with your notes intact and editable (Apple Preview is shown below). This is great to share with someone who does not use Paperpile. Of course, you can print a clean PDF without the annotations.
Export the annotations only
If you planning to write an an annotated bibliography, a critical review, a meta analysis, a paper for class or even a manuscript review for a journal, the ability is export the notes is invaluable. Using the same File menu, you will see the “export” option. This lets you export just your notes and highlights in several formats. If you want it to share on line, for examples, try the HTML option. This is great if you are writing a blog and wanted to include screen shots and notes. Notice that this keeps the annotations (notes, images, highlights) on the right and data about who made the notes on the left. Helpful if more than one person are making notes.
And of course, if you’re using this annotation tool to make notes for your own paper or a manuscript review, you can export just your notes as text or markdown and open in Google Docs, Word, or any editor and use those to help frame your draft. You have the contents of the notes as text and can quote highlighted text. Images are not saved, of course.
In my opinion, Paperpile is the best reference manager and PDF manager on the scene. Others, like Zotero, Mendeley, and Endnote are also good (and Zotero is free, of course). Each has things they do really well, but if you already use Paperpile, or are curious about it, I strongly suggest you spend some time with the PDF viewer and annotations. It’s really changed my workflow for the better. It’s just such well designed software.
Comments, corrections, and suggestion are always welcome.