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How I went completely paperless (with help from my iPad)

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Note from Tierney: There are lots of us in the nonprofit sector who still rely heavily on paper. The dream of "going paperless" has been around for a long time now, and hasn't been achieved for many reasons - legal/policy reasons, technology isn't good enough, personal preference, etc. However I think Kevin's story illustrates how recent improvements in cloud & mobile technology offer some practical ways in which paper use can be drastically reduced while still letting you do everything you need to do. In his case he was working on his PhD, but I think what he's describing is also quite applicable to nonprofits. 

Kevin McDermott By: Kevin McDermott, PhD Candidate, University of Guelph

When I was just about to start my PhD program in Management at the University of Guelph, I had heard horror stories from friends and colleagues about the number of academic articles that I would need to print, read and annotate. Some called a PhD a Photocopying Degree, and others lamented about their boxes and boxes of printed articles laying around their basement or office.

It was also just around this time that tablets started to become more than just a novelty item, and applications and online services started to mature to make me think that maybe I could do it differently. Maybe I could do my entire PhD without printing out a single academic article, maybe I could do it all electronically without negatively impacting my productivity.

There are a number of reasons to do so, including:

  1. The environmental considerations of reducing printed materials.
  2. Over the long-term, reduced printing costs may offset the cost of a tablet.
  3. I could carry all of my articles with me everywhere I go, simply by carrying around a tablet.
  4. No need to store boxes and boxes of papers.
  5. Electronic documents are searchable, printed/copied paper isn't.
  6. You can backup electronic documents, printed documents are less resilient.

What are the main tasks I need to do?

It occurred to me that if I was truly going to replace my need for printing throughout all of my PhD, I was going to need to fulfill at least the following main uses for a printer:

  1. Read a document
  2. Annotate/mark-up/take notes
  3. Provide feedback on a document
  4. Sign documents
  5. Organize documents (filing cabinet, folders, etc)
  6. Give document to someone else

Choosing my hardware

It was with these particular uses for a printer that I started to ponder my technological options.  My first step was to purchase a first generation Apple iPad. Even when I bought it I knew that a new fancier version was coming out, but I needed something right away to allow me to dive right into my readings.

This was the first piece of the puzzle to allow me to achieve the six uses for a printer that I listed above.  The iPad would allow me to read 8"x11" documents comfortably, and it would allow me to share and organize documents, but there were still a number of items that I couldn't figure out how to do.  How could I easily highlight, and make notes on my documents?

Finding a PDF annotation tool

I headed to the Apple App Store and evaluated a number of PDF annotation apps. I settled on my favourite, "iAnnotate PDF". It costs $10, but allows me to highlight, and make hand written notes as well as keyboard typed notes right onto a document. 

There are other PDF annotation apps available on the App Store, including "Good Reader" which I've also purchased.  It has significant other uses and benefits, but I find that iAnnotate PDF is made specifically for those of us who would like to mark-up documents, either for ourselves or to send to others.

Annotating a PDF with an iPad

Sharing files between iPad and computer

The next part of the puzzle was to figure out how to easily and quickly get all of the PDF documents that I was going to be reading onto my tablet. I sure didn't think that plugging my iPad into a computer with a USB cable every time I found a new article to read was going to cut it. The problem is that sometimes I'm away from my office, in a cafe or the library using a library terminal when I happen upon an interesting article.

I had to find a solution that would allow me to access all of my articles from any computer without the need for me to attach my iPad to anything. I'm not lazy, but I know that small inconveniences in my electronic-only PhD process would unconsciously send me towards the printer. So I created a Dropbox account that allowed me to store all of my PDF articles in one cloud-based location. The files are backed up in Dropbox, so that every time I modify or delete a PDF, it keeps all of the previous copies of the file just in case I make a mistake and need to go back to a previous version. Dropbox allowed me to access to my Dropbox account from any computer or tablet to read, annotate or add to my list of PDF articles.

Another piece in my ePhD puzzle was in place when I figured out that the iAnnotate PDF app connects directly to my Dropbox account, so that every time a new article was put into my Dropbox account from any computer, it would immediately and wirelessly be available to me on my iPad through the iAnnotate PDF app. Also, every time I annotated any of my PDF articles, they would immediately be copied up into my Dropbox account and would be available to me on any computer.

A side effect of this wireless "cloud-syncing" was that all of the hard work that I was putting into the documents that I was reading and annotating was immediately being backed up to some ultra-redundant, secure set of servers being hosted by someone significantly more technologically trust-worthy than yours truly. That is, professionals were looking after my files, rather than me trying to keep my tablet safe from theft or damage. Being on a university campus, there are times when I'm sure my electronic device could be stolen or dropped. If that occurred and all of my PDF articles were stored on my tablet (or laptop for that matter), I'd have lost potentially months of work.  But with Dropbox, or other cloud-based file storage systems, I painlessly have a backup solution.

Converting files to PDF

Now most of the time I'm able to download my articles in PDF form. This works great with iAnnotate and is pretty much a replacement for printing. But what about the times when I want to annotate documents that are not in PDF already? Like what if someone sends me a Word Document and I want to read it somewhere other than on my laptop, and write on it like I would a printed document?

This is when I downloaded the free tool "Cute PDF". This is an application that you can download for your PC that adds a new "virtual printer" to your computer, that will not send your document to be printed to a printer, but will instead send it to a PDF file.

Print to PDF using CutePDF

I have found that this "print to PDF" capabilities has closed the loop, allowing me to fully ditch the printer for nearly 100% of my PhD needs. 


So to recap, I did a few things to make this happen: 

  1. First, I purchased a tablet; in my case a full size iPad. I think the large size is important, because I find that I can fit a full 8"x11" document (with margins cut off) onto the screen at a time.
  2. Next I downloaded the iAnnotate PDF app from the Apple App Store.
  3. Then I created a Dropbox account (although other cloud storage options may be just as good including services like Google Drive, SkyDrive or iCloud). 
  4. The last thing that I did was enter my Dropbox account information into my iAnnotate PDF app to connect it to my Dropbox storage folder. For the cases where my documents are not in PDF form, I "print to PDF" using the Cute PDF printer, freely available for PCs. See my little diagram below.

Diagram of viewing & annotating PDFs on an iPad

Even though my first generation iPad is now three years old, and it is many generations behind the latest and greatest tablets out there, it is still my most valuable office tool. Not because of the device itself, but more because of the way it allows me to interact with my information that is stored on other services and applications. 

The combination of tablets and third party services has genuinely converted me into a proponent of electronic-only document management. I've lived it for three years and truly find this to be easier, more secure and quicker than a paper-based solution.

Kevin is a PhD Candidate in Organizational Leadership in the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph. Kevin also does business development work for the Waterloo-Wellington Learning Alliance that offers training and consulting services to the community benefit sector in Guelph, K/W and Cambridge Ontario.


Tip: Easy Annotate - unique pdf editor

Hi, Thanks for the info and on going paperless (the trees will thank you ;)). As an alternative to iAnnotate, may I suggest Easy Annotate. I use it myself, and enjoy using it. It has a nice unique feature: being able to view and edit two pdfs simultaneously. This is especially good when you need two compare two documents, or want to see references in combination with study material. Note: i'm the developer of Easy Annotate, so if you're interested, let me know and i'll send you a free promo code.