Zotero on Android revisited

(The text below sometimes copies verbatim, sometimes extends, and sometimes summarizes, text I have in the Zotero-to-Referey repo and my post on 2024-03-26 on the Zotero forums Zotero, the native Android App, and Emacs pdf annotation in the computer.)

The “official” Zotero for Android app

In December 2023 Zotero launched a Zotero for Android !! This is still in beta, and I have not (yet) been able to get into the beta testing program (slots are limited, and they run out shortly after new slots are announced).

I am very excited about this app, but yet it might not be what I need. Why?…

Why the native Android app might not be for me: it would break the computer part of the workflow, where I use Emacs

On my computers (Linux), I use Emacs, with the pdf-tools package, to open and edit pdfs. I have not switched to using the fantastic Zotero’s built-in PDF editor. Why?

  1. Because I prefer to do most of my work inside Emacs and pdf-tools is just awesome. Annotating, highlighting, moving around with both keyboard and mouse, using occur and incremental search, poping up on demand the table of contents —actually with different possible mechanisms, like imenu or the built-in TOC—, spliting vertically and horizontally arbitrarily —what Emacs provides out-of-the-box—, opening multiple PDFs side by side, rotating, etc, etc, etc —just awesome. (Sure, the built-in PDF reader in Zotero is also fantastic and has lots of functionality, and the handling of notes is just great.)

  2. Because I keep my notes in org-mode files; this setup has the side benefit, for me, that I can easily ripgrep, in a single call, over notes on papers, extracted highlights from papers, and the rest of my collection of notes. (I have commented about this in several places, and this probably deserves its own blog entry. Here is one comment in org-roam’s discourse, a long one in Reddit, and a shorter one in Reddit).

  3. Because I often access my library and PDFs from Emacs by opening the library exported as bibtex (using either one of helm-bibtex or citar).

  4. Because I keep these PDFs automatically synced with an Android tablet where I do much of my PDF annotation and reading. Crucially, Emacs’ pdf-tools adds the annotations in the PDF themselves.

The native Android app will not support opening PDFs in exernal applications, so one needs to use the built-in Zotero PDF editor (see this post and the following ones ) in Android. This will severely impact my use of Emacs to read and annotate PDFs in the computer.

Yes, the wording is correct: not being able to use an external PDF editor in Android can affect what one uses in the computer, because the built-in Zotero PDF editor does not add annotations directly in the PDF: it stores annotation in the Zotero database (see this discussion and the explanation in Zotero’s support —and note that I am not complaining about this).

So, to be able to edit and see annotations in PDF both on the computer and the Android tablet I’d probably need to use the built-in Zotero PDF editor on both the computer and the Android tablet. The only workaround would be for me to go through the manual and error-prone procedure of exporting the Zotero annotations in the PDF itself, and then reattaching that file in the Zotero entry. This does not seem sensible.

(Using Zotero’s Android app would probably also require using Zotero for storage of all of my PDFs, breaking some of my setup, but this is not a major concern; they key problem is not storing PDF annotations in the PDFs themselves).

The terms of the trade-off

I think I only have two options:

  1. If using the Android app is important enough to me, stop using Emacs to do PDF annotation, and use Zotero’s built-in PDF editor. I can continue opening the PDFs associated with an entry by making a call from Emacs (you call zotero as zotero --url zotero://open-pdf/library/items/ITEM?FILENAME, possibly also including page number) but I’d be annotating, reading, etc, using Zotero’s PDF reader, not Emacs.

    This means that I’ll have to alter much of my note-taking and note-searching protocol (and I won’t be able to open the PDF inside Emacs —unless I use EXWM as window manager). There are ways of integrating Zotero’s PDF reader notes with org-roam (e.g., https://www.riccardopinosio.com/blog/posts/zotero_notes_article.html#zotero-note-export) but the setup is very different from my current one.

  2. If using Emacs for PDF annotation and reading is important enough to me, forego using the Android app and … continue using the Zotero-to-Referey solution.

So what now?

So yesterday and today I have updated my review of the options available in the Alternatives entry of the Zotero-to-Referey repo. And yesterday I made a few updates to the Zotero-to-Referey code itself.

It seems like I will be using Zotero-to-Referey for sometime.