In early February this year, several publications reported that ninety-two percent of college students around the world prefer p-books over e-books when studying.

Among the reasons students give for this preference are:

  • A sense of accomplishment when they finish reading the book and they can display it on a bookshelf.
  • The physical sensation linked to reading (smell, touch).
  • Ease on the eyes.

The data was part of the research presented in Naomi Barron’s Words on screen: The fate of reading in a digital world (2015).

An interview following the release of her book, she said that “When I asked what they don’t like about reading on a screen—they like to know how far they’ve gone in the book. You can read at the bottom of the screen what percent you’ve finished, but it’s a totally different feel to know you’ve read an inch worth and you have another inch and a half to go. Or students will tell you about their visual memory of where something was on the page; that makes no sense on a screen. One student said, “I keep forgetting who the author is. In a print book all I have to do is flip back and I see it.” There are all kinds of reasons students will give—“I have a sense of accomplishment when I finish a book and I want to see it on the shelf.” They care about the smell of a book. In the Slovakian data, when I asked what do you like most about reading in hard copy, one out of ten talked about the smell of books. There is a physical, tactile, kinesthetic component to reading.

In a 2015 webinar, Barron discussed her findings with a group of publishers. Textbook publishers expected a twenty percent growth in digital and POD printing for textbook production in 2017, for a total of almost sixty percent. Barron claims that the digitization has been affecting the way we read and write. Especially when it comes to reading, slow, deep, focused attention have left the place to skimming and jumping from link to link. In her study, she focuses on four categories: costs, the length of texts, multitasking, and distraction vs. concentration. Among other things, the majority of students (sixty-six percent) “very often” multitask when reading use e-textbooks, whereas only forty-one percent of them multitask when reading a hard copy. Finally, ninety-two percent of the surveyed students said that they found it easier to concentrate when reading a hard copy.

Barron is not the only voice raising concerns about the spread of digital books. In When we are no more. How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future, Harvard historian Abby Smith Rumsey writes that “The carrying capacity of our memory systems is falling dramatically behind our capacity to generate information” (3). “Digital memory is ubiquitous yet unimaginably fragile, limitless in scope yet inherently unstable,” (4) and “Our culture and technologies are the ultimate power tool, enabling adaptive strategies that far outpace the strictly biological evolution other species must make to with.”  Therefore, “Gone is the promise of preserving knowledge forever” (8).

Barron agrees with this position.  At the beginning of her webinar she states that form and function go hand in hand: while books printed on acid-free paper are preserved, newspapers are meant to be read once, and online newspapers are read on the run and quickly forgotten.

More than 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar reported in his De Bello Gallico that Druids worried that, by using the written word, people would lose their ability to memorize important notions. However, the written word has deeply penetrated and molded our culture, and people’s ability to learn is simply not comparable to what it used to be.

Barron also convenes that the educational mission behind the creation of e-books is to democratize access to education. In fact, politicians and administrators keep pushing in this direction. President Obama declared in 2012 that he wanted to place an e-textbook in each student’s hands by 2017. In 2013 Florida followed suit and required that all students be provided with e-books by 2015. Moreover, at the beginning of this academic year, Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo announced the launch of the Rhode Island Open Textbook Initiative, whose pilot program has already saved students $100,000 by replacing print textbooks with OA e-textbooks for all sections of introductory biology at the adhering institutions. According to the governor, this program would help students save up to $5,000,000.

Moreover, money does not seem to be the main and only reason to resort to e-textbooks. They are lighter, more portable, and more environmentally friendly, and all these characteristics make them appealing to students.

If anything, the debate around students’ preference of p-book over e-books should leave us with the opportunity to develop some ideas. First: some students said they were frustrated by not knowing how much of the book they had read and how much was left to read. Publishers need to figure out how to improve e-books to provide this information in a way that satisfies students’ needs (the percentage at the bottom of the screen is obviously not the answer). Second: many students stated that on-screen reading does not help their visual memory and e-books are much harder to annotate. Higher education publisher should take note of this problem and look at what some STM publishers are doing with some of the on-line journal publication programs. Finally, students said they were frustrated by not being able to retrieve the author’s information at any given moment when reading an e-textbook. Publishers here have a great opportunity to enhance their metadata presentation.


Norman Rusin


Smith Rumsey, Abby. When We Are No More. How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. New York-London: Bloomsbury, 2016.