Last week I participated in the Books and Screens and the Reading Brain conference held at Vilnius University in Lithuania. The lead organizer was the EU COST action E-READ network and it drew attendees from across Europe. I was the only person from North America. The E-READ network is a group of researchers exploring the implications of digital reading.Vilnius is a fascinating city and I learned a lot about Lithuania (especially its troubled history and its very proud citizens). Vilnius University (founded in 1579) was a wonderful host. It was refreshing to be outside the US/Canada bubble that dominates most of my professional life.
Paper and Digital
Unsurprisingly, many of the papers discussed the digital reading experience: affect, comprehension, representation, intimacy, and even “aura”. The methodology of choice was eye-tracking. While a few researchers reported on the use of EEG and fMRI, eye-tracking was used by many to explore how we read digitally, especially in comparison to reading on paper.
And this leads to the most common theme: paper vs. digital. And the “versus” part should be emphasized. This was clearly competition. There were many good papers. One especially valuable meta-analysis (presented by Ladisiao Salmerón; a member of Rakefet Ackerman’s research team) analyzed dozens of empirical studies of paper and digital reading. According to the results, there is a clear “digital deficit” with respect to reading comprehension.
I confess to being tired of this debate, largely because it is an “apples and oranges” comparison.
Straight up comparisons of paper and digital reading typically standardize the text being read to isolate the effect of the media. However, few studies looked at e-readers (e.g. Kindles), so most compared paper reading to less optimal digital reading environments (i.e. computers or tablets). Writing on paper evolved to optimize the reading experience. It wasn’t always so (think of early manuscripts with dense typography and no punctuation or paragraphs). These studies change the format but they don’t consider changing the nature of the writing.
Put simply, effective digital reading requires appropriate/effective digital writing. Just as we write differently for paper so should we (in fact, do we) write differently for digital.
A more interesting empirical study would be to compare idea comprehension between a text written for and read from paper and a text written for and read from an e-reader (or an otherwise appropriate device). Still “apples and oranges”, but this time not a search for “deficit” but a search for effectiveness.