ScienceDirect iPad app quick review

I just discovered that ScienceDirect, aka Elsevier, released an iPad app. I was really curious to see what they came up with. Short version: I am extremely disappointed. This is a half-baked effort at best. Long version: read below.

The confusion starts from the beginning. On the App Store, you have the choice between a free and a paid ($2.99) version. It took me a while to find the differences between both. The description on the iPad app store does not really help. With the screenshots, I noticed that on the paid version you can also browse by journals. $2.99 for this ? They got to be kidding. Looking around on the science direct website, I finally found the differences. The benefits of paying are :

  • Browsing journal by Journal Name; by Subject Area or in Favourites
  • Setting up Alerts
  • Downloading PDF (iPhone Only)
I wasn’t too far off. The only benefit is the PDF download option, which curiously is only available on the iPhone ??? It’s a hundred times more convenient to read the PDF on the iPad, and yet you can only do it on the iPhone. Curious choice.
Anyway, I downloaded the free version to test it.
The start page is minimalist, with large icons providing access to the main functions: search and saved articles (and journals on the paid version). There is also a similarly huge icon for the information section, which is basically the “about” section. Which at best you will use once. Why would anyone want to have a permanent and quick access to this ? Curious choice, again.
More interesting is the “new on ScienceDirect” below, which you can customize with saved searches.
The search function is ok. Kind off. You can only filter by journal or authors. Why not other choices, like those offered on the website ?
The worst part is when you start reading paper. Some bugs make figures appear multiple times, three times, actually. So does the corresponding legend.
The font size is pretty darn small, and you cannot adjust it. You got to have some pretty good eyes. This is particularly annoying when you browse the table of contents and want to tap the section you want to reach. It’s easy too miss your target with such a small font size. The references section is equally poor and useless. No link to the papers or a search function to find them if they are not on ScienceDirect. Moving to the Figures and Table section, things are wrong again. No numbering of the figures (???). You cannot zoom on the figures, which would be the most basic convenience I can think about. On the abstract section, there is not link to email the corresponding author.
What else ? You would think that they tool care of syncing the app data (e.g searches) with your profile on ScienceDirect ? Well, no such luck:
Q: Can I view articles saved on SciVerse ScienceDirect mobile app through my desktop computer?
A: For now it’s not possible to coordinate your saved articles between the SciVerse ScienceDirect mobile app and from the Internet. This means that articles and searches you’ve saved in the mobile app will not be stored in account but you can email saved article records to yourself.
“email saved article records to yourself” ? Wow, this is the 21st century, guys ! I emailed the customer support a few months ago, when I was having trouble to sign in the iPhone version of Scopus, (to their benefits: they solved the issue quickly) and asked them if they were planning to offer the sync between the website and the app. Nope. They are built on different engines, so it’s wrong from the beginning. ”A tough cookie”, as they told me. The took the same path with the ScienceDirect app, apparently.
One thing they got right, though: the login authentication. It recognized properly my user account from the website, through which I have an institutional access to ScienceDirect.
To sum up, I can see no reason to use it now. All the basic functions are poorly executed or absent, and the absence of a proper sync with the website is really annoying. Some bugs are inexcusable (this is version 1.2.1 already), like the multiple appearance of figures. You would think that coming from such a large publisher (with lots of money, over 1.5 billion of profit), they would develop the app as a proper service to their customer (us). Yet, they claim in their annual report
Good progress on launching new content sets and innovative tools
For sure they were not thinking about their iOS app, right ? In the meantime, it’s more comfortable to use the ScienceDirect website on Safari. Try again. Removed from my iPad.

iPad for academics, a personal feedback

I got one almost as soon as it was out. I knew this was the device I have looked for, for a long time and for several reasons. I spend a good chunk of my day reading, and you’re more comfortable reading on the sofa that in your office chair. I haven’t had the slightest regret since I purchased it. It changed a lot of my workflow, for the better. I went a long way toward a paperless office and workflow.

A few quick thoughts on the device. The form factor is excellent. Smaller would be uncomfortable, in particular for reading papers. A larger screen would make reading papers more comfortable, obviously. The weight is ok. The Apple case is poor, but you need a case. Battery life is amazing, I can use it a couple of days in a row without recharging it. I went for the 16Gb Wifi (there is always wifi at hotels and conferences), since I am only storing papers and misc docs on the iPad. Almost no music or pictures, so 16Gb are more than enough (my whole papers library is around 1Gb). Reading in daylight is ok, contrary to what others said, just increase the brightness of the screen.

Here is a rundown of the apps I am using regularly so far, or that I tried. A fairly exhaustive list of app for scientist can be found here.


  • Reeder, the most beautiful and most convenient RSS reader, as far as I can tell. It syncs with Google Reader perfectly. $4,99
  • Instapaper. For curated reading. I sometime even send full papers there. The comfort of reading is amazing. I never read long text on websites anymore. $4,99
  • Kindle and IBooks. For books. Not for PDF (for me), see below. Free.
  • Pulse. Excellent for browsing a bunch of website for which I did not subscribe to the RSS feed. Free.
  • Safari. I spend at least half of my iPad usage time in Safari. Browsing the web with swiped and pinches is just incredible awesome and comfortable. You are living in the future.

Papers and PDF reading

  • Papers, of course. I am using the desktop version too. The iPad version is good for reading, in particular since annotation tools were introduced. I haven’t printed a paper for the past six months, I think. Not good convenient for bibliographic searches on the fly, though. $14,99
  • Mendeley. I am using Mendeley more and more, in particular since I have to use a PC. I don’t use too much the iPad app, though. I prefer Papers. Free.

Notes taking

  • Simplenote. Almost perfect, really, in particular since tags were added. Perfect for taking notes during meetings, conference, or ideas on the fly. Free.
  • Dropbox. Of course. How could you live without Dropbox, today ? Free of course. Not using it yet ? Do me a favor and use this link to register, and both of us will get an extra 250Mb for free.

Publishers and journals

  • PLoS reader. Pretty good. Not many of papers of interest for me inPLoS, though. Free.
  • ACS Mobile. Not very good actually. Nothing more than an  RSS feed of the various ACS journals. Avoid it if you are using RSS already. $4,99, which is a shame considering it’s nothing more than a toc feed.
  • Nature. Quite good, I like it so far. Free … except for the actual content, of course !
  • PubMed Tap. Quite good, but I don’t get many papers from PubMed. Free for the lite version.

The platform is still young, and I miss a couple of apps, such as Scopus (a dedicated iPad app). The iPhone app is ok, though I does not sync to the Scopus profile, too bad. I am using it through the website, which is very usable on the iPad. I’d love to see a Sketchup app, too.

A couple of apps I am not using, related to writing. This includes Papers, for instance. I don’t have a bluetooth keyboard, since I want to travel light. And extensive writing (hours long) without a keyboard is not comfortable. There are a couple of editors with or without syntax highlighting, such as Textastic, or TexTouch (with remote compiling), which would be useful when I’m writing TeX docs.

What I like above all ? Not having to carry my portable transportable laptop anymore. I only take my iPad when I’m traveling for a couple of days or go to conferences. Incredibly comfortable.