Print vs. electronic book technologies

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The differences in print vs. e-media
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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 17 October 2016


See also Computer vision syndrome | Effects of radiation on human health from wireless technologies | iPhone5 for physicians | Wearable computers

"...sometimes I think we need to listen to common sense, and what makes us happy... most people (and children) feel good once they have gotten out of the house, moved about some, taken a step outside of four walls... human beings need to move, feel we are loved, and a screen won't do that obviously... real life experiences make a real difference in human health... it's not that anything is all bad or all good, but that the sum effect of indoor screen-based life, is not the most satisfying or apt to build inner resilience, confidence or teach us to manage life's challenges..."

This entry examines print vs. electronic book technologies and the debate regarding the pros/cons of using print versus electronic forms of "reading". There are critical differences between print and online texts; some of these have emerged recently in research that underlines how paper (non-digital, analog format) brings benefits to readers in clear and often measurable ways. Print confers all sorts of benefits to readers as it supports cognitive-spatial understanding of intellectual content; annotation in textual margins; quick navigational affordances and flexibility (Taipale, 2014). One study (Bavishi et al 2016) concluded that one of the "...benefits of reading books includes a longer life in which to read them...". This entry aims to move the debate beyond quick judgments about analogue vs. digital functionalities and convenience to focus on cognitive and ergonomic issues, and simple intuitive issues why readers prefer specific media. (See related searches on the cognitive neuroscience of reading on screens.) To see an example of a project concerning smartphones and their impact on our thinking processes, see Barr N et al. The brain in your pocket: evidence that smartphones are used to supplant thinking. Comp Hum Behav. 2015;48:473–480.

What does the 'evidence' say?

Ackerman lauterman.png

A growing body of evidence suggests that readers of online materials do not retain information as well as print readers. This difference has been demonstrated in the primary grades in various studies where different types of print and digital texts play a role in reconfiguring cognitive functioning and our brains (see Ackerman, 2012; Carr, 2008; Wästlund, 2007; Wolf, 2008). Recent research reported by Jakob Nielsen, an expert on website usability, states clearly that reading on computer screens causes cognitive and ergonomic fatigue more than print, and is remembered more poorly than reading on paper (How Users Read on the Web). The web has had a huge influence in the way that we communicate but librarians of all stripes need to be cognizant of its effects on our ability to read and acquire knowledge.

In 2013, Slate and Scientific American both published articles on this topic. In the Slate article was this memorable quote: "...our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply...". The take home message is that most of us understand and remember text better when read on paper rather than a screen. According to the SA article, even though e-readers and tablets are becoming more popular as these technologies improve, reading on paper has many advantages. For a populist view of the topic, see Keim B. Why the smart reading device of the future may be paper. Wired Magazine. 1 May 2014. In 2014, Morgan et al published a study that examined the impact of microwave radiation that emits from cellphones and found that children are especially susceptible to its carcinogenic effects. Yet another reason not to use mobile devices.

Cognitive issues

Reading has historical, technological, social and behavioural contexts but it is also a cognitive activity. It is therefore unsurprising that reading digital text will have cognitive and neurological implications on readers. While much is unknown about the human brain, one accepted fact is that the structure and function of the human brain changes as a result of internal and external stimuli (Doidge, 2007). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can show how brains change their shape in developing readers (Poldrack and Sandak, 2004; Yarkoni, et al., 2008).

While reading changes our thinking, scientists acknowledge that there is a limit to its plasticity. Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene says that the human brain did not evolve for culture but that our culture has had to evolve for the brain. In fact, all writing systems share common traits in that they tend to be a series of strokes that the brain can be trained to interpret. Humans have been reading for many thousands of years, and reading technologies have evolved from strokes on clay, to scrolls, to modern–day printed materials to meet the limited adaptability of the brain. In the digital age, how our brains adapt to new electronic media (i.e., print, text) is not yet fully understood. Despite the fact that skimming and jumping from place to place within text is not limited to online reading, this type of reading appears to be more common online. Popular writers, such as Nicholas Carr (2010), continue to express concern over its potential neurological impact.

Recently, researchers have called attention to the substantial differences between reading on screens and have been calling for more recognition among educators about the cognitive differences between the two (Ackerman, 2012; Burke and Rowsell, 2008; Leu, et al., 2008; Mokhtari, et al., 2009). While there is insufficient scientific research, we know that reading on screen is cognitively different from reading on paper, both in terms of brain activation and the contextual environment (i.e., cognitive focus, comprehension and reading speed).

Eye strain & fatigue

Computer vision syndrome is caused by our eyes and brain reacting to characters on the screen differently from how they react to characters on a printed page. Human eyes have little problem focusing on most printed material, which is characterized by dense black characters with well-defined edges. Healthy eyes can easily maintain their focus on the printed page. Characters on a computer screen, however, don't have the contrast or well-defined edges described above. Consequently, these characters (pixels) are brightest at the center and diminish in intensity towards the edges. This makes it very difficult for eyes to maintain their focus and remain fixed on these images.

According to the American Optometric Association (AAO), CVS is a growing problem due to the ubiquity of workplace computers and mobile devices. Many of the symptoms experienced by computer users, however, are temporary and subside after stopping computer work. Some individuals experience continued reduced visual abilities such as blurred vision, and other problems related to eye strain. When nothing is done to address the cause of eye problems, symptoms continue and worsen. Prevention or reduction of vision changes due to computer usage involves taking steps to control lighting and glare on your computer screen, establishing optimal working distances from the computer screen and maintaining proper posture.

If you experience vision problems (or eye strain) and believe that they are due to working with computers, you are advised to visit your family doctor for a referral to an optometrist. Even minor vision problems should be properly addressed if they do not resolve on their own after rest and time away from staring into computer screens.

"Screen sightedness"

  • Have you got screen sightedness? Smartphones causes sight problems

  • Allamby's claims are supported by previous research which has shown that using a smartphone can damage people's vision and cause headaches. Researchers at the University of California found that the problem is the demand on the eyes to focus on the screen and simultaneously adjust to the distance of the content. The phenomenon is known as 'vergence-accommodation' and experiments found people suffered discomfort when content from mobile phones appeared in front of the screen rather than behind it.

See also Chang AM, Aeschbach D, Duffy CF, Czeisler CA. Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. PNAS 2014:1418490112v1-201418490.

Will a glare screen alleviate fatique?

Glare screen filters will help somewhat, but they do not solve your computer vision problems completely. These filters affect glare from the computer screen but not the visual problems related to the constant refocusing of your eyes as you work in front of a computer screen. Once your eyes can focus clearly at the plane of proper distance on the computer screen, they experience relief from the fatiguing effects of staring into a computer. Anti-reflective coating is recommended for all computer eyeglasses. The coating prevents glare and reflections that interfere with focusing on the screen.

If you work in a brightly lit office, you may benefit from a light tint applied to your computer lenses. This cuts the amount of light that reaches your eyes and provides relief in some cases. But tints and filters don't address the underlying cause of computer eyestrain.

The debate in academia & libraries

Many observers in academia and in libraries state emphatically that digital texts are likely to replace print as the major medium through which human knowledge is conveyed. Academic libraries have moved quickly to adapt to this assumption, and now purchase more electronic books and texts than print. In addition, many institutions of higher learning publish electronic texts, and work with academic libraries to digitize unique book holdings or scan archival and other special collections. This paradigm shift to digital "holdings" has made a lot of material openly-available. It has also brought tremendous benefit to university researchers, students and the public. However, the reason for this shift has also been economic, having to do with escalating prices for journal subscriptions and limited library budgets (Darnton, 2010).

In 2014, academic libraries now provide access to large collections of electronic monographs. But not all is well with such a move: researchers complain about poor e–book interfaces, cumbersome publisher–imposed access restrictions, and the ephemeral nature of reading online. Analytical online activities that are in any way equivalent to writing in the margins of paper have not emerged, even though e–books can supple these features. According to numerous studies, the technology of print on paper continues to be more suited to analytical in–depth reading than e–books on computer displays (Berg et al, 2010; Coyle, 2008; Lynch, 2001).


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