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Hacking Your Research: Tablet Edition

Two tablet apps that can streamline research and reading.

January 15, 2015

Kelly Hanson is a PhD candidate in English at Indiana University, Bloomington. When she’s not using her iPad for research, you can find her on Twitter @krh121910.

I was lucky enough to be gifted an iPad mini for Christmas this year, and I’ve spent some time over the holiday break trying to figure out the best apps and tablet practices to make this technology work for me. While using a tablet to grade student papers is handy, I am most interested in using this tablet for research purposes. From reading and annotating articles, to reading ebooks, to accessing my research databases, to decluttering my office, I want this tablet to work as a research tool.

While I found a lot of information on using iPads (or tablets more generally) for teaching, I found comparatively little on how to use them for research. In the last two years, tablet technology has come a long way, and there are a number of exciting app developments since the last time GradHacker took a look at tablet and research use in 2012. I’ve found a number of great tools and apps (some of which, like Evernote, we’ve discussed before). Below are my two favorite apps for academic research.

Note: both of these are free, easily accessible, and have a lot of free, open-access content. However, they work best if your institution has an affiliation with them.

Bluefire Reader (and Ebrary)

Bluefire is a reading platform for both Android and iOS. The Bluefire Reader itself allows you to read, download, and annotate ebooks. The most appealing part of this reader for me, however, is that it allows you to download (or rent) and read library books (so long as they are secure). For many grad students, this means that we can rent books from Ebrary, an ebook repository that many, many university libraries use to provide ebook access. On a computer or tablet, you can access Ebrary’s books by authenticating through your library’s website. Our library provides links to Ebrary books in our search catalog, but yours may be different, so ask your librarians about access. If your school doesn’t have access to Ebrary, you might want to ask your librarian about how to request that it get access.

Once you’re in Ebrary, you can set up your own personal account and place books you want to read on your bookshelf. From there, you can read the books in a web browser, or if you have a tablet, open the web page and download a rental ebook to Bluefire for a short period of time (usually two weeks). In Bluefire you can read, take notes, annotate, and adjust the screen lighting to suit your reading needs. I prefer reading an ebook on a tablet to the laptop because the tablet mimics the book experience and allows me to annotate as I would in a book (using a tablet stylus). While not all academic books are available this way, Ebrary has enough to save you significant time and energy that you would otherwise spend hauling books back and forth to the physical library (not to mention it helps you avoid those pesky late fees!).   


While Bluefire and Ebrary allow you to access, read, and annotate books, Browzine gives you easy access to academic journals. It has open-access content, but works best with an institutional affiliation. When you download the app, simply select your institution and you’re ready to go! Overall, I think this free application is perhaps the most useful app I have on my iPad. It makes hundreds of academic journals available for reading, and is incredibly easy to use. You can browse journals by subject, place them on your bookshelf, and then select the articles you want to read. With a university affiliation, I can access all of the recent issues of academic journals I could ever want or need to read on my tablet without authenticating through a web browser or navigating cumbersome online databases searching for the most recent issues. Browzine does not have annotation abilities, but the PDFs transfer easily to any tablet PDF reader if I want to annotate them. I can then sync to my computer through Dropbox, Evernote, or other cloud storage for future research purposes.

Together, Bluefire Reader and Browzine make 90% of my reading material available to me wherever I go. This can be both a blessing and a curse, especially if you’re someone who tends to research as a way of procrastinating on writing. However, I find this availability makes me generally more productive because I’m able to quickly and easily access more information on a given topic, and this makes both my thinking and my writing much stronger. This shouldn’t replace using hard copies, of course, because not all journals and books are available through these systems, and we wouldn’t want to mistake accessibility for actual comprehensiveness. But these tools can go a long way towards hacking your workflow and making research and reading easier on a day-to-day basis.

There are many, many other apps out there to help make your tablets work better for academic research, reading, annotating, note taking, or even library cataloguing. What apps have you found useful?

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ron Morris and used under Creative Commons licensing]


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