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Feb. 26, 2009

Let's Get Bookish About E-Readers and Study Them

by Karen A. Frenkel

By Karen A. Frenkel

Amazon released Kindle 2, the second version of its e-reader, two days ago on Monday February 23, and product reviews and Op Eds are upon us. Sony has been competing with its Reader 700. A Dutch company, iREX makes an e-reader called the ILiad. And start-up Plastic Logic, of Mountain View, CA, recently demonstrated a prototype of its device.

Amazon won’t release sales figures. Sony claims it sold 300,000 devices since its original debuted in 2006. Publishers are creating electronic versions of their titles—about 240,000 titles are available. And last December, The New York Times proclaimed that e-books (which have been around since the late 1990s) are taking hold. Clearly many powers that be perceive a large market.

When Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos appeared on The Daily Show, however, Jon Stewart commented, “It just doesn’t feel like the kind of thing you want to fall asleep with on your chest.” But later he added, “Anything that gets people to read more, I’m all for it.” Here's the clip on the Huffington Post.

But do e-readers get people to read more?

Copy on Amazon’s Kindle site says, “We designed (the Kindle) with long-form reading in mind,” but that’s in the context of it being easy to hold, like a book. Consumers hail e-readers, saying they are superior to LCD displays and report less eyestrain and headaches. But what about research comparing e-books to tree-books?

Amazon says it has collected only anecdotal evidence from users. E Ink (which owns the technology that both Amazon and Sony licensed for their e-readers) confirmed that it hasn’t conducted any studies. I suppose I could cull through Amazon’s Kindle site to see what percent of the 5,000-plus testimonials report symptoms. Sony didn’t respond to my inquiries.

E-books may indeed be great, but it’s also possible that people will read on them for shorter periods of time without knowing why. If their reading habits are shaped by these devices, that could, in turn, effect attention spans. Maybe readers will find something boring when really they just got tired. Our notion of a novel might change as might demand for non-fiction prose. People may start to read less. More magazines and newspapers may appear on e-readers. This worries me. People are so overwhelmed with information today that they are already reading shorter and shorter pieces online. And not everything can be explained in 800 words or less.

I tried to find studies assessing peoples’ reading experiences with e-readers. I searched PubMed with the e-readers' names, “ebooks,” “e-books,” “e-readers,” “ereaders,” and “eyestrain” and found nothing. Three studies assessing medical e-textbooks showed up under “electronic books.” I queried the Association for Computing Machinery’s database and found some not very recent literature about reading on Palm Pilots, Pocket PCs and other small handheld devices.

Somehow by Googling (I no longer remember the keywords), I found an article by Anne Mangen: “Digital Fiction Reading: Haptics and Immersion,” published in the Journal of Research and Reading last December. Mangan, a researcher at the Center for Reading Research in Norway, found that reading hypertext stories generates a new form of mental orientation that is not totally imersive. Although a reader may avoid navigation tools and links, subconsciously he or she gets distracted by opportunities to do something else. Mangen also says that young people who have grown up reading on screens may have different reading habits and preferences than older ones who’ve read tree-books most of their lives.

Gene Golovchinsky, Senior Research Scientist at FX PAL in Palo Alto, CA and a longtime e-book and ergonomics expert, says if studies had been conducted and resulted in positive findings, then e-book manufacturers would be touting them. So there may even be negative results, he says. Because print on traditional computer displays results in lower reading speeds, people didn’t like reading on them; for over 20 years they’ve been saying, “If it’s a large file, I print it out.”

User interface guru Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group, Fremont, CA, finds it “suspicious” and “strange” that companies promoting the technology haven’t done any studies about reader comfort. They would not be hard to do, he says, and these companies could easily afford them. He’d like to see a formal reading speed study investigate words per minute for different technologies, printed books, and different computer screens. E-book manufacturers could also ask readers to rate the pleasantness of their experience and give their personal opinions about it.

Jeffrey Anshel, an optometrist who practices in Carlsbad, CA, sees patients with eyestrain. He offered this solution: invoke the 20:20:20 rule. Take 20 seconds to look 20 ft away every 20 minutes. But how many people take time to do that?

Golovchinsky distinguished between “active reading” done by professionals at the office, and reading for leisure. Active reading involves note-taking, quoting, comparing documents, etc. He says a certain tech-savvy population may be interested in the current crop of e-books for leisure reading, but only when e-books offer functionality difficult or impossible to obtain on paper will they become important to the larger market of knowledge workers.

Unlike Nielsen, however, Golovchinsky believes studies of e-reading are not trivial to design. If a difference were found during reading, it might be hard to ascribe to any particular factor, so you need to control for the weight and size of device, and lots of other factors. But these are not insurmountable obstacles, he says.

Shouldn’t e-reader makers and academic researchers study what readers experience with these devices? Those contributing to the Kindle site are a self-selected group. If there’s a generational difference in reading habits, I’d like to know. It’s not too early for scientific studies. Findings could have a lasting impact on our culture. Right now companies are jumping into the market, and consumers, perhaps dazzled by technical capabilities, are clamoring for products that may influence them in unknown ways. What do you think? Would you like to see serious research on e-readers?

For information about me and clips please visit my site.

About Karen A. Frenkel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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