Sunday, October 05, 2014

Why I may ditch the official Android App for Mendeley

In academics, you have to read regularly and have to read a lot. Online access to research articles made our life easy by making full-length research papers a click away. Gone are the days of photocopying and stacking articles in folders.  PDF files of research articles are easy to store, read, and annotate. But ease of access also increases number of papers that one downloads. As the number of papers in the hard disk crosses three digits, it becomes almost impossible to keep track of all those papers and keep those organized. This becomes more problematic if you have multiple interests. A document-cum-reference manager like Mendeley is essential to manage such large libraries. Mendeley is buggy, even after acquisition by Elsevier. Am habituated with its bugs. I use Mendeley to organize papers, with tags, notes and highlights. And am happy. But like many other Mendeley users, I had one long standing demand: to have Mendeley for Android.

In the age of tablets and phablets, users prefer to read papers in their handheld devices. It's very comfortable for me to lean back on a sofa and read a paper in PDF format in my tablet. Highlighting, marking and putting notes, on a PDF file, are easier when you use a touch-screen. Though Android exploded the market for tablets, Mendeley does not have an official Android App. There was lots of expectation that acquisition by Elsevier will lead to the release of one. Though there are news of its development, the App is not out yet. Video and screenshots of a working version of the App were shown in the recently held MDOD14. As per the announced timeline, we may expect the App to be available, for public use, some time in the next year. But even then, I expect that it will have one major limitation.

My network connection is not reliable and it's not always there with me. I prefer to have all the papers of my Mendeley library to be synced and stored in the SD card of my tablet. That's why I have a 32 GB card. This allows me to read these papers anytime, anywhere. Mendeley allows you to store PDF files in their own cloud. It’s free upto 2 GB and beyond that you have to pay. I believe the future Android App for Mendeley will be built around this cloud service. It may even allow one to download files in the device and keep those synced using the same Mendeley cloud. That's where is my trouble.

The size of my Mendeley library, with all PDFs, is already of ~3.5 GB. So I have to use a paid subscription to sync those using Mendeley. I already have a subscription for Dropbox, that I use to sync data files and official documents across multiple devices. Subscribing another cloud does not make sense for me. Additionally, Dropbox gives many options and flexibilities in file management. I want to stick to Dropbox. Therefore, an official Android App for Mendeley may not be suitable for users like me. I want to use the Mendeley but want to sync files using my Dropbox.

Fortunately there is a way out. Referey is an Android App that allows one to view and query a Mendeley database and open associated files stored locally in an Android device. I use the desktop version of Mendeley to create and update my library regularly. Mendeley creates a sqlite database file and keeps associated PDF files organized in a designated folder. I keep this folder and the database file synced with my Dropbox. These files can be now downloaded and auto-synced in my Android tablet using Dropsync. Bingo!! Now I can use Referey to explore my Mendeley database, search papers based on my tags, authors, keywords, journals, year of publication and read the associated PDF files, even in absence of any network connection. As I read those papers, I annotate them and once I have the network, Dropsync syncs those annotated PDF files with my Dropbox.

There are a few more unofficial Android App for Mendeley. But none have the ability to access and read files stored locally. Referey is minimalist and has a very amateurish interface. It does not have any inbuilt PDF reader and you should have one installed separately. Unfortunately, it does not allow editing of the database. That means you can not add any new tag to  a paper. Even then I am happy with it, as it allows me to work offline. And honestly, am not dying to get an official Android App for Mendeley.

Update: Recently purchased a Xiaomi Mi Pad running MIUI, based on Kikat. A tab is perfect for reading papers. Unfortunately, while trying Referey-dropbox-dropsync combination in this tab I met an obstacle. Thanks to Google for making life a bit difficult. From Kikat, Android does not allow third-party Apps to write to anywhere in external SD card. So even though I have a fat extrrnal SD card in my tab, Dropsync can not download all my reference PDF files to my SD card. Also Referey can not read the Mendeley sqlite database file from SD card. Thankfully there are way out. The sqlite file is small. So I kept it in the inbuilt storage of the tab. But I have kept the PDF files synced in the SD card, by a simple trick. The trick is here.