Review: Utopia Documents makes PDF articles easy to explore, not so much to read

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Utopia Documents

Scientific research is no walk in the park, but anyone who's ever worked in it will agree that finding, reading, and citing articles is one of the most time-consuming tasks. Utopia Documents is a free research utility aimed at making this task easier by offering a PDF reader with built-in exploration tools and other research aids. Although it can be considered as a direct competitor to services like Mendeley, Zotero and ReadCube, Utopia Documents is actually different from all three, and even sports a Mendeley integration.

Utopia Documents loads additional article information in the sidebar.

On the surface, Utopia Documents 2.2.1 looks like a PDF reader, and while you can certainly use it as your main reader, that's not its best point. It lacks simple features such as annotations, highlights, and so forth. Its strength lies in the sidebar, where you'll find extra information about every article you load, helping you research a subject, find related articles, create citations, and more. Start by loading a PDF from your computer, or pasting a PDF URL. Utopia Documents works only with PDFs.

Several seconds after loading an article, information will begin to fill the sidebar. This will change from article to article, but can include the article's metadata, a formatted citation in one of seven available formats (the BibTeX one kept returning "Internal Server Error" when I tried it), an Altmetric rating, telling you how much online discussion this article is attracting, related articles from Mendeley, the article's open access status, and if the article itself is open access, the full reference list, complete with links.

On the bottom left corner you'll find most of the document controls. From here you can toggle the pager for quick browsing through the article; the sidebar; and the figure browser, whichlets you flip through all the article's figures. The figure browser is a brilliant feature—sometimes the figures are all you want to see—but it doesn't always catch all of them in every article, so don't trust it blindly.

Use the Figure Browser to focus on an article's figures.

The program offers several more features for exploring articles, some available only in articles from specific journals. When dealing with articles from Springer, eLife, PLoS or PubMed Central, in-article citations become links that show the full reference without having to look it up in the bibliography. These also includes a link to the article online or to the article's full PDF, if it's open access (a PDF link will open in Utopia Documents). Articles from the Biochemical Journal also include interactive molecules and protein sequences you can play and rotate, and live databases you can export and change. Some articles also come with annotations which hold extra information. Hold down the space bar when reading to see all annotations and special features in the article.

There's no limit on what you can explore, though. Highlight any term within an article, and from the pop-up menu choose "Explore," This brings relevant information to the sidebar, including a Wikipedia entry, formulas, molecular structures, related lab products, related articles from PubMed, and more. The information includes many relevant links, some of which open inside the sidebar itself. The amount of information changes from term to term. You can also search for any term manually by clicking the search icon on the bottom left corner of the page.

Utopia Documents works best with open access articles, as these are most readily available online. You can't import and explore your own PDF collection and you can't use it to download articles from journals you're subscribed to through your institution. That being said, you can manually load any article you can get your hands on, and Utopia Documents will supply its valuable information. Note that the program doesn't have a tabbed interface, so each article sits in a separate window. It gets quite heavy on RAM when multiple articles are open, going as high as 100+MB per window. These comments apply only to the Windows version; vendor Lost Island Labs offers Linux and Mac versions as well, but PCWorld didn't test those.

Highlight any term to find out more about it with the Explore feature.

Utopia Documents is a nice way to explore articles you already have, find related articles and information on your topic, and easily create citations to use elsewhere. You can also copy text directly from a PDF and paste it anywhere without any formatting issues. As a PDF reader, however, it fails to deliver, offering only online comments you need to a registered user in order to use, and no way to highlight, annotate, comment on or bookmark anything in the article. The Explore feature and the wealth of available information, however, make it worth your while to load some articles into Utopia Documents and see what you can discover through it.

Note: The Download button on the Product Information page will download the software to your system.

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At a Glance
  • Utopia Documents is a great source of information, but it won't replace your current PDF and citation tools.


    • Includes a figure browser
    • Finds relevant information from all over the Web
    • Makes it easy to create and explore citations


    • Lacks basic PDF-reading features
    • Doesn't connect with your local article collection
    • Finding and downloading articles usually needs to be done manually
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