Adobe’s PDF file format has become fairly ubiquitous. Most of the scholarly journals and databases provide download access in PDF format. And when they are available in full text, books from Google Books can also be downloaded as PDFs. All this means that there’s quite a bit of reading to be done in PDF format. Unfortunately Adobe has priced Acrobat, the full suite of editing and creating tools for PDF files, well beyond the reach of the average graduate student. Of course, Adobe has always made Acrobat Reader available to the public as a free download. And in recent years a bevy of third party programs have made it possible to view and even create your own PDF files with very little fuss. The newest versions of Microsoft Office even allow users to save files directly to PDF format.
While reading PDFs and saving PDF files has never really been easier, very few of these programs allow the user to make markups or annotations to PDF files for which you are not the original author. Adobe recently added the ability to add sticky notes and highlights to PDF files using Reader. Fortunately one of the free third-party PDF readers out there has even more features. With Foxit Reader you can add notes, draw lines boxes and other shapes, type text onto the file, and add your own bookmarks.
Here’s the workflow I follow for reading this type of file. I’m not generally one to write copious notes and other marginalia alongside the text of books are articles I read. Unless I’m truly struck by a flash of cognitive inspiration, I limit my annotations to lines drawn alongside valuable paragraphs and the occasional star next to a particularly juicy tidbit. To accomplish this with Foxit Reader, I typically read through a PDF while using the draw line tool to add simple lines along the side of the text. If I need to stop reading and close the file before I’ve finished reading it, I’ll place a bookmark where I left off so that I can easily return to that page. Once I’ve finished, I’ll go through the document again stopping where I’ve left these marks and adding notes about them to my Zotero database. In the screen grab below I’ve added a line along one paragraph and placed a comment alongside another.
If you’ve been frustrated by the “read only” nature of Acrobat Reader, or if, heaven forbid, you’ve been printing an old growth forest’s worth of paper in order to read your downloaded books and articles, Foxit Reader might be the tool for you. This advice also applies to those of you who’ve been ruining your eyes by printing journal articles out with four pages shown on each side of the paper. Embrace the digital revolution; read and annotate on your screen; save even more trees.
If you’ve developed your own methods for annotating PDFs, let us all know about them in the comments.