Scholarly Reading on Tablet Apps

As paper-based media have transitioned to electronic formats, the consumption of scholarly writing has also transformed. Prior methods of interacting with a text or a journal issue, including bookmarking and cross-referencing, have been streamlined. Such concepts as page numbers and predetermined font size are gradually losing their significance.

With the advent of electronic tablets and other handheld devices, thousands of science articles are just as portable now as a single journal issue. Tablet applications, “apps” for short, can be used to organize a journal’s content to allow efficient searching, reading, and saving of articles. Generally, an app provides a superior user interface for performing those tasks on a tablet or other handheld device compared with the journal’s Web site. Some apps are integrated with the journal’s Web site.

There are multiple operating platforms for tablets, including iOS for the iPad, Android, and Windows. However, most scientific-journal apps appear to be created for iOS. Many journals—including the New England Journal of Medicine,1 the Nature journals,2 The Lancet,3 and the Cell Press journals4 —have apps exclusively for the iPad. Some journals, such as the JAMA5 and Science6 journals, have multi-platform apps, but these are less common.

Accessing journal content through apps allows for the searching and displaying of articles in an organized manner. Typically, an individual subscription is required to access content. Most apps display a list of available recent articles and issues, some pictorially by cover, others by volume and issue number. There may be indicators of which content you have access to or which you have accessed previously. Apps representing a network of journals allow access to multiple journals.

A search function available in most developed apps and usually denoted by a magnifying-glass symbol typically allows a keyword search across all issues of a journal. Unfortunately, “advanced search” options are often limited, at times allowing a search within a single issue or filtering by article type or date. The Cell Press app has additional search functions, such as filtering by specific date ranges or searching by author name.

Once you have accessed the content of interest, many apps provide a method to mark it for easy access in the future. Bookmarks are a common feature. Once an article has been bookmarked, it shows up in a list of bookmarked articles. Depending on your level of access to the journal, an article or an issue may be downloaded for offline reading. Some apps have additional options for sharing an article by e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter.

Reading an article on a tablet offers many features that are not possible with a paper journal or even on a laptop. The unique characteristics of a tablet are the utility of its high-resolution touch screen and the fact that it is a handheld device. Font size can be changed to suit personal preference. Pinch-to-zoom abilities allow instant enlargement of an image of interest or even the article itself in an app that has built-in access to an article’s Portable Document Format (pdf) file.

With a touch screen, useful features can be incorporated into disappearing toolbars or side tabs that remain hidden within an article until the screen is tapped. These usually include navigational buttons and the common article features mentioned above (such as bookmarking, changing of font size, and article sharing), but some apps have additional uses. The Nature app has a side tab that provides an abundance of metrics data on the article being read, including citations, page views, and number of socialmedia shares. Another side tab provides access to all the figures related to the article.

Cross-referencing is used effectively because of the ability to make anything “clickable”. In most apps, clicking on an article citation in the text provides the complete reference. References in the text to tables, figures, supplemental data, and appendixes are linked directly to the data. Clicking on the corresponding author’s name may present additional information about that person or a link to make it easy to e-mail him or her. The New England Journal of Medicine app freely incorporates PowerPoint slide sets, audio summaries and interviews, and video content into its articles.

Although those journal apps are now past the stage of their infancy and starting to come into their own, there is room for improvement. Future apps may provide more customizable search engines, additional functionality for organizing bookmarked articles, and greater integration of multimedia content. Features of nonacademic texts, such as the ability to highlight and comment on specific text in an article, can be incorporated into the article, as can built-in dictionaries. Related content may be recommended on the basis of reading and search patterns. With tablets expected to outsell desktop and laptop computers combined by 2017,7 journal apps may become the primary way to access journal content.


  1. About NEJM: frequently asked questions. Accessed 2013 May 19.
  2. mobile. Accessed 2013 May 19.
  3. The Lancet. Accessed 2013 May 19.
  4. Cell. Accessed 2013 May 19.
  5. Introducing the JAMA network reader. Accessed 2013 May 19.
  6. Take your science to go with the new Science mobile app. Accessed 2013 May 19.
  7. Gartner says worldwide PC, tablet and mobile phone combined shipments to reach 2.4 billion units in 2013. Accessed 2013 May 19.

VICTORIA S S WONG is assistant professor, neurology department, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon. PATRICIA K BASKIN is executive editor, Neurology journals, American Academy of Neurology, Minneapolis, Minnesota.