Kami (formerly: Notable PDF): Online annotation of documents for you, your peers, and your students

crocodoc

I liked Crocodoc personal, in fact, I found it a quite fascinating tool as it mad it very easy to have several people comment on and discuss any pdf document. But apart from suggesting it to students as a tool for their group assignments, I didn’t really use it a lot. Also because already more than I year ago, it somehow looked like a neglected side product that may be shut down any time. And now my suspicion was confirmed in an email from the Crocodoc founders, announcing that Crocodoc personal will be shut down on 1 November 2015.

This prompted me to search for alternatives to Crocodoc and this post is a first and somewhat preliminary review of what I found. I was surprised to see how the market for online annotation services has changed in the last year or two. When I found crocodoc in late 2013, it was one of two serious competitors, at least when it comes to free services, but I think even among the paid ones, I could not find anything that might have suited me. I was looking for something that would make collaborative reading of texts possible for students and which would allow colleagues to quickly scribble some comments into a draft document. Here are my brief notes that I took down at the time:

  • diigo doesnt seem to support pdfs properly (although its apparently possible)
  • a.nnotate seems great for pdfs, but free version only allows 30 pages per month
  • mendeley would be excellent but free version only has one private group with max 3 members
  • crocodoc: also looks good but I cant get the annotations to work on the ipad. need to check on PC

So the only serious contenders for me were a.nnotate and crocodoc at the time, with my final preference clearly being Crocodoc.

Annotate has now launched a more attractive service called Annotate.co. It is certainly worth looking at, but two things turned me off right away: first, the free version only allows two users (and every commentator is a user) and the paid version is catered more towards business/ work teams and would be too expensive for whole classes of students, let alone schools.

Apart from Annotate, there are Notable PDFiAnnotate, and Notable. I’m trying not to spend too much time comparing stuff, when it’s not necessary. Looking at the four of these pretty quickly let me settle for Notable PDF for the time being in order to try it out.

Notable is good if you want to share among a virtually unlimited number of people and are prepared to pay US $19 for that. It might even be possible to use one such paid account for several classes/courses, but I didn’t check how exactly this would work in practice. There is also a free account with “limited features” but I couldn’t find any information about what features actually are included. Anyway, the reason I am not exploring this further at the moment is that even in the paid plans, you can only leave comments on the documents- That’s it. And that’s not enough for me. I want highlighting and free drawing on the page in addition to Word-style comments. At least.

So, what’s wrong with iAnnotate? We’ll it’s pretty easy: it’s only for iOS and Android. Not for desktop PCs, i.e. no web-interface. No need for me to look any further further. But this minus can surely be a big plus if you need something that works well on your tablet or phone. I yet need to check how well Notable PDF works on those mobile devices.

As you can see, although there is a better variety to choose from it’s still pretty easy to make a choice. I will explore Notable PDF from now and I’ll let you know whether I ended up integrating it into one of my workflows and how. But since I wont be doing any teaching for a couple of years, I will not be testing it for teaching. Only research. Please leave a comment below if you have tried it for teaching. I am really curious if this could be a tool for teaching students how to read academic texts, basically by reading them together.

What I like about Notable PDF is that it can also function as your pdf Viewer (at least on Chrome) so that any pdf you open on the web will be displayed in Notable PDF, which means that you can start annotating it right away. However, I am currently using Adobe Acrobat Pro as a viewer (and editor) so I’ll have to see whether Notable PDF can really compete with this. But if you don’t have Acrobat, chances are that you will like Notable PDF better than the internal pdf viewer.

What also makes Notable PDF attractive for teaching is that it has a dedicated classroom plan for 2 US$ per student per year. It looks like the free version can bring you quite far as an individual and if you need more, the monthly plan for individuals is just $2. What I’m not sure is how well either of these versions will work for teams, i.e. peer collaboration. They have (more expensive) plans for that too, so there must be something that these plans have that the others don’t. Time to explore. Please share your views and experiences on this too

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Speed-reading pdfs using the “Spritz” technique

sprint reader logoA couple of days ago, I came across Spritz, a company that is popularizing a speed reading technology whose name I’ve forgotten called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation.  You get the idea once you look at the Spritz website. I immediately thought that this could be a way for me to read all those texts that I have to read as an academic a lot faster.

I am a very slow reader for three reasons: the first is that I look up every other reference and almost all footnotes. Sometimes I get so distracted that I even look up some of the references and start reading those instead (and so on).

Another reason is that when I read an interesting paragraph of sentence, that often triggers my own thoughts and associations and I start wandering off, thinking about how I might integrate that idea into my own text or whatever.

Finally, the third problem is that I simply read slowly, I guess because I really want to understand and thing through everything, rather than focusing on the essentials.

Now, I don’t want to philosphize too much about the pros and cons of speed reading here. Suffice it to say that if the aim is to get through a text reasonably fast at 350 words per minute with at least superficial understanding of the content (or even ridiculously fast at 800 wpm with probably minimal understanding but a rough idea), then this Spritz technique seems adequate to me, and I have indeed read two articles that way yesterday.

My point here is to show you how to read pdfs using this technique (not the original Spritz itself, cause their app is not released yet) because the reading apps that are out there at the moment seem to work only with plain text, while most academic articles come as pdf files.

It’s not a big deal, actually, but it took me a while to figure it out nevertheless. All you need is the Chrome bowser with the Sprint Reader extension installed. You also need to make sure that you have the native Chrome PDF Viewer enabled. This is the case by default, but if you are using Adobe Reader or Adobe Acrobat, you might have disabled it. In order to enable Chrome PDF Viewer, type “chrome://plugins/” into Chrome’s address bar and scroll down to find Chrome PDF Viewer and, well, enable it. The following will not work with pdf-files that are not displayed using Chrome’s PDF viewer.

You can now use Sprint Reader to speed read not only text on websites but also your locally stored pdf files (just drag them into the browser). Select the text you want to read, right click and select “Sprint read selected text”. There you go. (Needless to say that your pdf file needs to have actual text in it, not just a scanned image of text. If you have an image of text, you need to run some OCR on it.)

The Sprint Reader extension in action
The Sprint Reader extension in action

I recommend setting the “pause after period” higher than the default 450 milliseconds. I’m currently using 900. I also set the “pause after paragraph” to 2000, but that basically has no effect when reading a pdf, because there seem to be no paragraphs in there that the Sprint Reader would recognize as such, unfortunately.

There are also a couple of other drawbacks that we currently will have to live with, especially that the reader will – not surprisingly – read all the text in the pdf, which means it will also read the header on each page, the page numbers, and – most annoyingly, the text inserted on every page by various publishers, such as:

This content downloaded from xxx.xxx.16.16 on Thu, 17 Apr 2014 06:49:43 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

You will also encounter problems when there are tables and figures in the text, but hey, otherwise it works okay.

Why did I chose Sprint Reader and not any of the many other similar services and extensions such as Spreed – speed read the web, Spread Speed Reading Extension, Spreeder, or OpenSpritz, to name but a few? Well, it’s the best of them all. It’s not perfect (I did encounter a couple of crashes or whatever it was when it simply did not work until I restarted the browser), but it is very customizable and it works with pdfs, which not all of the others do.

Having said that, here are some suggestions for improvement in Sprint Reader, especially for people like me reading scientific texts:

  1. Add an option to exclude (i.e. hopp over) brackets containing a four digit number. Why? Because that would exclude all references provided using an Author-Year citation style and make reading academic texts a lot easier.
  2. Recognize abbreviations such as e.g. and treat the dots in these differently (i.e. don’t apply the “pause after period” rule). One quick way of minimizing this problem could be by checking whether the dot is followed by a capital letter. If not, it’s not a period.
  3. It would be nice to be able to exclude customized strings, such as “This content downloaded from xxx.xxx.16.16 on Thu, 17 Apr 2014 06:49:43 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions” (see above)
  4. Ignore hyphens at line breaks and join the words to one. The few cases where the hyphen should not be eliminated because it is a hyphened word, are negligible.
  5. Recognize paragraphs in pdfs (see above). I’m not sure whether this is possible, but I might as well add it to my wish list.
  6. Add a keyboard shortcut for quick rewind as, for example Spreed has it (I think it was spreed anyway). In addition, it would be nice to have the replay at a lower speed and then back to normal speed when passing the point where the rewind was initiated.
  7. The extension should not be dependent on the text selection in chrome, once it has started. This is feels almost like a bug to me, although it is not, but it is a bit of a pain in the *** that you cannot unselect the text you are currently reading without the reader losing track of it. It would be better if the reader would load the whole text into its own memory, once you press play, making it independent from what happens in the browser.

UPDATE: I just realized that the Sprint Reader sometimes seems to have problems rendering text in pdfs. I have a pdf in which it reads some of the text without problem but when I select and right click other parts, there is not even a possibility to select “Sprint read selected text”. In fact, this may be a problem of chrome (or the pdf?) and not the extension. Either way, be prepared to encounter this problem with your favourite pdf file…

Turn a double-page pdf into single pages using briss

Wow! I just discovered a little tool that does exactly what I’ve been looking for since ages. I’m sure you’ve also wondered about this after having scanned a book or book chapter: how can I cut those scanned double pages down the middle and make two pages out of it (because it is two pages in the book)? And, of course, you want to do it automatically. If you’re using Adobe Acrobat, you might expect that this rather expensive software has that function built in, but you will find: it hasn’t.

But thanks to Gerhard Aigner, you wont have to worry about this any more because he created Briss, a  cross-platform (Linux, Windows, Mac) java-application for cropping .pdf-files. Oh, and did I mention that it is freeware? You just open your pdf file, position the rectangles according to the position of the pages in the book and select “crop pdf”.

My only criticism (or suggestion for improvement) would be the following: while the program allows you to copy cropping frames across different sections of the document, it does apparently not allow you to copy the frame for the odd pages and use it for the even pages. So if you want to have odd and even pages in the same size and format, you need to draw your even-pages-frame on top of your odd-pages-frame to make sure they are the same size (only visual judgement!) and then drag it over to the even page. It’s feasible but a bit cumbersome. Or well, actually, it can be almost infeasible at times, namely when your frame as exactly the height of the page, because the the size of a frame changes if you move it across the edges of the page and since you will hardly be able to move your mouse 100 percent horizontally, the frame will get smaller as you drag it.

Oh, and drag’n’drop would be nice: i.e. the possibility to drag your pdf into briss directly from Windows Explorer. And an option “First page last”. The latter would facilitate scanning of brochures and booklets because in those the first scanned page will contain the front cover and the back cover.

Another think to be aware of is that the briss (just like Adobe Acrobat) apparently does not delete the parts of the pdf that are “cut off” but just makes them invisible. At least that’s what I gather from a comment by user “Viking2ev” on sourceforge. But that’s only a problem if you want to get rid of confidential information.

Oh, and irrespective of briss, during scanning, you need to watch that your book in the same position on the scanner for every double page. Otherwise you might have to do several runs with briss and then merge the files back into one with Acrobat or so.

Having said all that, I still think that briss is an excellent tool for scholars to use. Just go and try it out.

[UPDATE: I just found a very similar program that seems to be more flexible to use: It’s called Scan Tailor, it’s also Freeware and it seems to be maintained better as the last update is from May 2012 while Briss hasn’t been updated since July 2011). The only (big!) problem is that it is apparently unable to read .pdf-files. So your scans have to be in supported files types are .tif, .tiff, .png, .jpg, .jpeg … So if that is okay for you, try both and tell us what you think about them in the comments below!]