How Useful are E-Readers for Academic Reading, Really?

"Library In A Pocket" by Maggie Smith
E-readers are now commonplace. It’s quite easy to obtain one of many devices on offer, and acquiring books online is a matter of minutes. But how useful are e-readers as a replacement for printed academic books and journal articles? As I travel frequently and take my research and writing projects with me, this question has become quite important for me. I cannot possibly lug around all the books I need, and reading journal articles on the screen of my laptop is uncomfortable and a strain on my eyes. For these reasons, I have begun to experiment with e-readers.

In general, e-readers are fairly small, and they do not exceed the size of a typical academic book. They also tend to be much lighter and much easier to carry around. A small Kindle or any other reader of a similar size is just really very convenient to use during a long flight or train journey. With the devices I have used, I have also found battery life to be more than sufficient for long reading sessions. All of this, I expect, has contributed to their great popularity among general readers. But what about academic reading?

Academic reading is distinctive in that, very often, it forms part of work towards a specific end. We do read academic texts as a matter of general interest and to remain aware of the latest developments in our areas of interest. More often than not, however, we draw on books and journal articles in the context of our own research and writing projects. Within such projects, first of all, we typically draw on a very wide variety of sources. This is one reason why e-readers remain somewhat problematic as a substitute for traditional printed text. Journal articles are nowadays generally available as convenient PDF files, which most e-readers understand and display. However, sociologists, anthropologists and other social researchers need books just as much or almost just as much. While more and more books are available in electronic formats, many others are not. While digitised versions of some classic texts have been issued, many, many others remain inaccessible. Moreover, depending on publishers’ choices, resources and editorial strategies, many new books are not made available electronically either. While an e-reader can store hundreds of texts, it might be impossible to get those you really need.

Next, you may encounter significant technical issues. Journal articles are typically published as PDF files, but these do not display well on the screens of many e-readers. This means that you will need to use specialist e-book management software, such as Calibre, to make an article readable. Converting PDF files into other file formats while ensuring that a text remains properly formatted may turn out to be complicated and time-consuming. As far as academic books are concerned, one serious problem I have encountered is that many are published without page numbers. So, for example, my Kindle might tell me that I am reading location 1091 of 4808 of David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (i.e. the beginning of chapter 3), but it does not tell me that this corresponds to page 64 of the print edition. Citing from the e-book therefore is a notable problem. I found there to be many little technical concerns of this kind. In the end, it may turn out to be far less complicated just to pick up a printed book and start reading.

Finally, e-readers may seriously impair your reading habits, in that such devices seem to be geared towards the consumption of a text in a linear sequence, page by page and chapter by chapter. It is possible to browse and move around within a text, but this usually involves pressing buttons, tapping the reader’s screen repeatedly, etc. This makes it unduly complicated, for instance, to check a book’s index and follow up on the terms referenced there, or to read related passages in different chapters side by side. You can annotate text and to set electronic bookmarks, but, again this may turn out to be more complicated than just keeping notes with pen and paper.

Due to these limitations, I do not think that e-readers can fully replace printed academic texts at the moment. Too often, they are too inconvenient to handle, and, at least in the social sciences, the mentioned lack of sources published electronically is a serious concern. On a short trip away from your library, e-readers can nonetheless be a worthwhile alternative to a suitcase full of books. At least I have found that I hardly ever travel without mine anymore.


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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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4 years ago

Thanks for posting this!

Do you think there is a desire within the scholarly community for an improved reading experience of journal articles on e-readers?

4 years ago

Thanks for the insight. I have been toying with the idea of an e-reader as I am not keen on reading large volumes of work on my laptop. But I’m also faced with not wanting to print a lot of materials and kill a bunch of trees.

I still may get one, but with all the academic reading ahead of me, it is good to get points of view from people who are already using e-readers

4 years ago

I’m so glad you posted this. You hit the nail on the head. Also, if you’re doing a review, for say Common Ground Publishing 😉 you can’t really annotate and mark up the text. I mean, you can, but ultimately, it’s just so much harder than say, highlighting, pen scribbling and throwing the completed text in a scanner when it’s complete. It seems to me that these issues would be really really easy to fix, maybe the scientific market is too particularized to make it worthwhile. You should post an update when/if you find the perfect reader. I’ve been using… Read more »

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