The Future of Academic E-reading, Still a Long Way to Go


This post was originally published on the ProQuest Blog

Chan Li, Senior Data Analyst, California Digital Library

Can academic reading happen as effectively with ebooks as with print books?

Our users told us – not now.

However, our study indicated that it is possible in the future, especially with improved usability of ebooks and new technologies that can support online deep reading.

Over the last ten years, the number of ebooks licensed by the University of California (UC) system has quadrupled and is still growing rapidly. In 2014, there were over 6 million ebook downloads by UC users. At the same time, we often hear from our users that print is still their go-to format for academic book reading.  
The conflict between the large quantitative ebook usage numbers and anecdotal stories about heavy print book use from our users makes us want to better understand the ways our students interact with print and ebooks. Improved understanding will assist us in developing the best services and strategies for managing and providing access to existing and prospective book collections.
In the fall of 2015, librarians from the California Digital Library and the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC)* conducted a series of focus groups with 31 graduate students from the arts, education, history, and literature departments at UCSC to learn about their experience using both print and electronic monographs. The interview questions emphasized both students’ actual behaviors and their preferences, to explore when, why and how graduate students use print books and ebooks to support their research.

Print books are not going away soon

When asked about the format of their most recent book use, the majority of the students indicated that they used and preferred print, although they all use ebooks extensively as well. Most of the print books that students requested were available within the UC library system. Therefore, interlibrary loan was the default print access method for most students we interviewed. 

Access restrictions and usability challenges can make ebooks frustrating to use

Why do our students use and like print books so much? The biggest factor that impacted students’ format selection from our study is accessibility and usability. Despite a few concerns mentioned for print books, for example, short loan periods, personal storage space limitations, library copies that cannot be annotated, and others, print is consistently considered to be easily accessible and convenient to use, especially for a long and deep reading. 
On the other hand, a long list of access restrictions and usability challenges with ebooks were discussed by the majority of the students. Some ebooks have watermarks, some have restrictions on the number of pages that can be downloaded, and some have a limited number of simultaneous users. 
One student joked that because of the simultaneous user limit, he always had to read at 2:00 a.m. Working off campus is a big challenge because some ebooks are only accessible on campus. Students are often very frustrated when the downloading process is slow. One student complained that “That lag is so painful that it brings back my childhood dial-up internet memory.” 
The poor layout of certain ebook platforms makes them very hard to navigate and doesn’t show the whole book in context. Some students reported that many library ebooks are not optimized for e-readers, or the content on e-readers is hard to use, e.g., content not being searchable, incorrect pagination and others. 
Students reported different experiences with annotation tools on ebook platforms. Some students thought that the tools work well especially when the annotations can be centrally stored. Some students complained that the annotations cannot be exported for future use and different platforms design tools differently, which made them challenging to use. 
All of the issues discussed by students demonstrate how much improvement is needed in the area of ebook usability and accessibility.

Reading online can cause physical discomfort

Another factor is physical discomfort. Many students complained that they have experienced fatigue, worsened eyesight, back aches, and other physical discomforts while reading online, which is mainly associated with reading on computer screens. Students reading on e-readers reported less physical discomfort.

Reading online is perceived as less conducive to learning, especially with lots of distractions and little physicality

Then, there is the comprehension factor. One of the students we interviewed compared reading in different formats to running in parks versus treadmills. 
She said “I know what 15 miles feels like, based in part where I am in Golden Gate Park when I run 15 miles and how it feels on my body. But when I run on a treadmill, I don’t have an effective imprinting about what any amount of time or space feels like, because it is uniform…And I am not learning as much.” 
What she vividly described illustrates the role of physicality in reading, where the structure of the text can facilitate comprehension. Navigating text in print books can create a mental path of the content within context, which is critical for learning. 
Students also reported that when trying to locate the particular information they often remembered where in the text it appeared. 
However, scrolling seamless streams of words on ebooks loses the sense of space and the context of the entire text. Some ebooks are displayed as one page. The endless scrolling can greatly inhibit students’ learning experience and comprehension. 
One student reported that “When it hits minimum scrollbar size, I am out. I need a thicker scrollbar that tells me that there is an end to this thing, that I will be able to go through. Because otherwise, there is hopelessness to massively long documents that extend to the ether.”
Also, students reported that they tend to read fast, scan quickly, repeat lines and get distracted easily while reading online, but they tend to slow down and read closely if it is a print book.
So, does it mean that people cannot comprehend and absorb information online? Experiments have been conducted for decades in this area comparing reading on screens versus reading in print. The most recent studies suggest that reading can happen effectively on both formats, with the right technology and adequate digital training. 
At the 2015 ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco, Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research, gave a great presentation on deep reading in the digital age. She discussed the importance of deep reading, how the human brain works, how print facilitates reading, and most importantly, how digital learning can be taught and encouraged so that deep reading can happen online as well. 
Even though some students we interviewed still have a bias against ebooks, their attitude and perceptions could change if ebook technology improves and if they become more familiar with e-reading techniques. 
More research and development is definitely needed in this area.

Some reading behaviors create opportunities for more ebook use, some pose challenges

During our interviews and discussions, a few academic reading behaviors were identified as factors impacting students’ book format selection. Some of the behaviors create opportunities for more ebook use, while others pose challenges.
Annotation is considered by most of the students as an important part of the reading process. One student said, “It is important to me that my future readings are guided by the things that I marked up.” Another student said, “If I annotate and it doesn’t stay, then I might have well just not read it, because it doesn’t work for me.” Some students even found other people’s notes valuable. 
In terms of formats, some students think it is easy to annotate print books, because they can underline and dog-ear, which helps them memorize the text. Annotating print books is only useful when students purchase their own copies, as library copies are not meant for social annotation. From this perspective, it is quite inconvenient to use library print copies. 
Ebooks licensed by libraries, on the other hand, can provide annotation alternatives. Users can annotate ebooks either through ebook platforms or through a third party annotation tool. Although annotation tools are not offered by all ebook publishers, and sometimes they are cumbersome to use, a few students had successful experiences. They reported that they could underline and write things by hand on a tablet and save the annotations for future use. 
Multi-tasking during reading is easier with ebooks. Reading, writing, and researching are often integrated. Students highly valued ebooks’ search, copy and paste features so that they can write while reading. The hyperlinks on ebooks can make research easier as well.
Repetitive reading is another behavior revealed in our discussions with students at UCSC. When asked about their last book use, all the students indicated that they had either used the book before or were planning to use it again, maybe for different purposes. 
If it is for long and deep reading, it is convenient to use print books. A few students indicated that repetitive reading is one of the reasons for purchasing their own print copies. However, if it is to look up information quickly library books are inconvenient to check out multiples times. From that perspective, ebooks are more accessible. 
Recursive reading is often challenged by reading online. Reading is not a linear, but a recursive process. It requires reading back and forth and comparing content between pages and books, which is often inhibited by reading a single virtual page on the screen.  
One student said, “I can have two to three books open on my desk at the same time and be picking out pieces comparatively through them.” It is easy to put multiple print books together, but not so easy with ebooks. Also, students often found footnotes and appendices very important sources of information – they easily returned to the book checking out the appended notes. With most current ebook layouts, it is often challenging to easily flip between the appendix and the rest of the content.

E-readers create a better reading experience

When asked how they read their ebooks, more than half of the participants read the books on computer screens. They all dislike the experience due to physical discomfort, difficult navigation, and poor layout. 
About a third of students reported that they read their ebooks on e-readers. Most of them enjoy that experience. One student even said that he can only read ebooks that are in the e-reader format. 
Annotation features work better on e-readers than computer screens. Students reported that they can export and print out the annotations as well.
At the same time, a few concerns about e-readers were raised. Pagination is not correct sometimes making ebooks difficult to cite. Some ebooks cannot be searched on e-readers. Some e-reader features depend on apps which are not consistent across publishers. Also, not all ebooks licensed by libraries are optimized for e-readers.

How to make ebooks desirable?

In order to turn challenges into opportunities, first libraries need to conduct product evaluation and usability tests on ebook platforms regularly to understand what features are available on all ebook platforms and what limitations and restrictions exist. Libraries need to work with publishers to improve ebook features, and to design tools, particularly for ebook reading. 
In addition, digital learning doesn’t happen overnight, especially for deep reading. Libraries need to provide better training and technology support to encourage students’ digital reading and learning.
Now let’s hear what our users want from ebooks.
“The closer it is to have the functionality of a real book, where you can quickly…with the flick of a hand, the closer to that experience in general, the more I like it.”
“The ease of actually reading a paper book so don’t get tired, and the portability, taking notes, annotating and storing on an ebook, combining those two things would be absolutely phenomenal.”
We can eventually get what users want, but there is still a long way to go.
Chan Li received her MLIS in 2006 from UCLA. She is the senior data analyst at the California Digital Library, where she manages all aspects of electronic resource assessment activities. The UCSC focus group research project originated from her participation as a scholar in 2014 Institute for Research Design in Librarianship at Loyola Marymount University.
*Key project contributors: Danielle Watters Westbrook (CDL), Kerry Scott (UCSC), Sarah Troy (UCSC), Ivy Anderson (CDL), Emily Stambaugh (CDL), Felicia Poe (CDL)

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