Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Here's Why Online Journal Articles Make You Use More Paper, Not Less

I don't know about you, but I was never a real believer in the "paperless office".  I was always hopeful that the future would bring that big electronic resource where everything that could be read, browsed, admired, or referred to could be easily found.

Yes, we're getting there.

Today, with the proliferation of online scientific journals delivering millions of electronic documents, we can download journal articles, glance at the abstracts and figures, and decide that the paper is worth reading.

If it is, it's usually sent to a printer.

It's not surprising.   There was always something intuitive about holding a physical object like a book or magazine to read, or to put a pencil to paper and write.  There's an added benefit of tactile memory when actually holding an object being read (as opposed to an object displaying the text being read).  For instance, at the MIT Technology Review, David Zax writes:
For my money, I don’t see the value in ersatz storybook animations replicating turning pages. This, for me at least, is an uncanny valley that cannot be crossed. Paper and ink cannot be virtualized to my satisfaction, and it’s an article of faith for me (until the science proves me wrong) that the benefits of paper reading cannot be replicated.
And there's research to explain why this feeling exists.  At Scientific American, Ferris Jabr describes the many limitations of e-books, especially in helping to orient readers where they stand, so to speak, among the text they're wading through:
In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there's a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled.
I'd have to agree with him.  I love reading e-books using Kindle for my iPad - the latest being Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz - but doing so was more work than it should have been, especially when pagination actively changes when switching from letter to landscape and vice versa.

As luck would have it, Jabr also linked to this study, which explained that there's an added cost to dealing with information through a computer, in that "consumption and production of information in a computer aided environment results in a dual-task situation consisting of both the completion of the assignment at hand and of handling the computer."

They found that 28% of participants in a reading comprehension study reported problems following text on a terminal, and that those using electronic terminals were more stressed and tired than those reading from paper.  In the end, one of the main conclusions was that people consumed information much more effectively when using paper.  In fact, the authors conclude stating this:

Computers [were] ... invented in order to save time and let people engage in more complex questions or leisure time; not as shown in this study, to impair performance and diminish the experience of work.
So in a small but significant way, finding out that there actually is a common tendency that makes people want to read from paper makes me feel a little less guilty about sending papers to the printer, though I still print on both sides.  The paper can, after all, be recycled.