Reading Time: 4 minutes
Academic studies of reading appear to be influenced by romantic ideas about how we read print (Corot, Woman reading in the country, around 1868-70, Metropolitan Museum)

Where did this idea come from, and is it valid? It seems to me an example of over-extending the results of a small survey and then using this interpretation as a general principle, valid for all time. For example, Kovac and van der Weel in “Reading in a post-textual era” (2018) argue that “comprehension suffers when complex texts are read from screens … long-form deep reading traditionally associated with the printed book will be marginalised by prevailing media trends”.

Are we really losing the ability to read? I know life today is bad, and my eyesight is not so good these days, but I didn’t realise we are living in such a sci-fi dystopia. I wrote critically about some of the research into the way we read earlier (“Has digital publishing ruined our ability to read?”), but this idea keeps coming back. The Kovac and van der Weel article mentioned above states the view:

  • Reading is a more demanding modality than visual images, and undemanding forms of entertainment, especially television and film — and now series and even computer games — are an attractive alternative to a broad class of long-form texts such as genre fiction;
  • The Internet is an inherently fast-paced medium: insofar as it continues to be used for reading, this causes a tendency for users to prefer reading shorter texts;
  • Shorter texts are by their nature less likely to be complex and afford a broad vocabulary;
  • Reading fewer long-form texts tends to reduce (1) the ability to engage with complexity in argument, syntax and grammar, and (2) the depth and breadth of vocabulary

Sounds grim indeed: our brains are addled by looking at screens, rather than by using the print environment that we fondly imagine is somehow better for us. Let’s look at the research on which these claims are based. One key paper is by Singer and Alexander (2017), which comprised a “a systematic literature review … to examine the role that print and digital mediums play in text comprehension.” But there are some problems with the methodology of this paper. The systematic literature review identified 878 articles, but the authors discarded all but 36 studies for their literature review. They then subdivided those articles into studies of short (less than 500 words) or long texts, as well as texts for different age groups and for different purposes. Only a handful of studies of academic reading remained. The authors concluded “results suggest that medium plays an influential role under certain text or task conditions or for certain readers”. That doesn’t sound very conclusive to me.

It appears to me that the authors were seeking the solution they subsequently found. By dividing the 36 remaining studies into those examining longer texts (more than 500 words), they found “comprehension scores were significantly better for print than for digital reading”. But only 22 of those studies were about non-fiction text, and only seven of the articles they examined were about longer texts. Based on these seven articles, the authors found that “91.67%” of the “charted studies” revealed an interaction between text length and medium. Given that the authors only considered seven texts, it is difficult to know how they got to the figure 91.67%. The authors suggest that the reason for poor comprehension on the screen is because longer texts require readers to scroll between portions of the text, which means beyond a page boundary – and this, they claim, is more difficult on screen than on paper.

Let’s consider what happens when a researcher reads an academic paper. Leaving aside the task of locating the article in the first place, something that could take hours in a print library to find the relevant issue and pages, the task is then to read the article in depth. But any thorough reading of a referenced paper requires the reader to check the references and the figures. Each of these requires jumping from the article to a different location and back. Personally, I welcome innovations in digital reading that provide hyperlinks to (and from) the references. So I can read, for example,

As Smith (2021) states …

and look up the relevant paper. Using your fingers, you can try to keep a bookmark at the print page you are reading, while you search for the reference with your other hand; but it’s cumbersome. In a similar fashion, you have problems trying to see the figure alongside the relevant text – that is why enterprising publishers provide the figures as a pop-up alongside the text. You might be lucky with a print layout showing the figures at exactly the right point in the text, but you might not.

The same methodological problem with reading applies to books, with the added complication that references may be at the end of the chapter, or at the end of the book: there is no standard layout, whatever scholars might claim from the so-called “Order of the Book” as an organization we all use.

In short, digital reading is so much more efficient for academic purposes that no researcher using only print versions could manage the process; unless, of course, they had more then ten fingers. When there is a comparison between print and digital reading, then, I think it is salutary to consider what we actually do when we read academic text, and not to assume that reading comprises simply a single sequential pass through a text. Nor is it a pleasant afternoon in the country with a good novel.