Reading: Moving from paper to screen

1. Introduction

Some years ago I read an article, which, somewhat anticipated the progress in the field of reading on both screen and mobile devices. I thought it would be interesting to share my critical views written by that time, when researchers anticipated the latest developments in the field. Even though, I noticed that reading from paper is still preferred by a part of readers who still feel comfortable holding a book and flipping through it. Is that a question of habit or just about resistance to change?

2. Background

When Microsoft Reader was launched in August 2000, Bill Gates anticipated that the paper age would end around 2018. Despite this prediction from a commercial perspective, Gutenberg’s technology still offered much more in terms of reading in the past decade. At first glance, on screen reading and reading from paper entail a basic mental process of identifying words and understanding their meaning, but there is a contrast between the two reading conditions due to the reading supports: paper and screen.

What to choose? eBooks or paper books?

What to choose? eBooks or paper books?

The Internet sets media and traditional books in fierce competition due to its power to store, publish and disseminate information. When desktop publishing software and hypertext applications appeared, many researchers expected to handle fewer paper documents in office. On the contrary, the amount of them increases day by day in a direct relation with the computer networks.

In 1996, Muter noticed “we do not know how to optimise reading via electronic equipment”. One year later, Kenton O’Hara and Abigail Sellen published a technical report, which revealed a complex research project whose purpose was to compare reading from paper and on screen reading. The two authors managed to find out which factors may be considered for a further optimisation of the interface design for screen reading.

3. An interesting experiment

The experiment of O’Hara and Sellen considered several “outcome measures” earlier discussed by other researchers such as reading speed, accuracy, comprehension, eye movements, text navigation and manipulation, in combination with psychological, human and ergonomics factors. When referring to some previous experiments the authors argue (1997, online) that over the past years, before publishing their research finding, the technologies have made significant progress in improving on screen reading conditions:

Such measures do not generally find remarkable differences between paper and screen, although during the early ‘80’s, a fairly reliable finding was that reading from a screen was significantly slower than reading from paper [15, Muter et al, 1982]. However, since that time, a series of experiments [9, Gould et all, 1987] have shown that improvements in screen technology lessen these differences, and may even eliminate them [16, Muter and Maurutto, 1991].

Ten volunteers working at EuroPARC laboratory, in Cambridge, the UK, took part in the research. Subjects were randomly grouped in two teams: one was assigned to read from paper and the other one from a screen. The task of the subjects was to read and summarise a text from a general science magazine.

For screen reading, researchers did not choose the latest software and hardware, as they wanted to “emulate a more conventional situation – a typical workstation running a commonly used word processing application” because “better systems and better interfaces may significantly alter the reading process” (O’Hara and Sellen, 1997). The members of the screen reading team were familiar with the online conditions.

The procedure offered similar working conditions for all subjects and both activities relied on the subjects’ skills to read, analyse, evaluate information, extract basic ideas, recall details and outline conclusions. During the experiment the following common characteristics were noted in both reading conditions:

  • annotating while reading enabled subjects to understand the source document and helped in planning for writing
  • subjects organised information, made references and verified comprehension by shifting documents or screen windows, either from the source to the summary document or within the same document
  • Subjects needed to lay out pages in space to easily get a mental picture or overview of the document, to check on or relate specific pieces of information and finally to put reading and writing side by side.

(Adapted from O’Hara and Sellen, 1997, online)

Two research tools were used to gather data: a video protocol and post-experiment interviews, when subjects were invited to watch some selected clips from the session and comment on them. Both tools allowed researchers to extract qualitative and quantitative data, which were structured and interpreted according to three interrelated reading activities: annotation while reading, movement within and between documents and laying out documents in space or “tangibility” (Schilit & al, 1998, p.3). The following contrasts were noted:

a) Annotation while reading

Actions Paper reading Screen reading
Annotation support easy and naturally “integrated with reading” hard to handle and disturbing reading
Taking notes on the document source straight on the source not enough flexible
Taking notes on a separate document occurred often and mostly combined with reading simultaneously combined with editing

b) Movement within and between documents

Actions Paper reading Screen reading
Navigating within document rapid and spontaneous less attractive and difficult
Navigating between source and summary document subjects combined navigation with other activities by using both hands “one-handed”, limited to the screen areas and without “immediate feedback”
Estimating page and document length proper evaluation due to the paper “tactile qualities” unsuccessful
Making use of visual memory abilities good and supportive for searching and re-reading because the document was visualised entirely undetermined, but subjects used images to locate some document parts

c) Laying out documents in space

Actions Paper reading Screen reading
Getting an overview of the document structure “visualisation of a great deal of information” and “quick reference to the others documents” either losing “resolution through shrinking the documents” or using “overlapping windows”
Connecting and relating pages and “pieces of information” across pages “flexible and dynamic” rigidity of planning “in advance” for further needs and requirements
Juxtaposing reading and writing independent reading and writing reading and writing couldn’t be combined properly as “only one window could accept input at a time”

(Adapted from O’Hara and Sellen, 1997, online)

 The experiment findings proved that screen reading was more difficult than paper reading, except for taking notes on a separate document. The following drawbacks of screen reading are obvious:

  • annotation inflexibility while reading
  • difficulties in moving within and between documents
  • unsuccessful tangibility.

According to the authors, the scientists may consider the benefits of reading from paper when they look for solutions to improve “the design of digital reading technologies, both in terms of the development of better hardware and software” (O’Hara and Sellen, 1997, online) to make online reading more attractive. These benefits are:

  • considering annotation as a integrated part of reading
  • supporting easier and faster procedures for text navigation
  • incorporating more flexibility and control in spatial layout.

Mentioning the benefits that online reading tools such as “fast keyboard entry”, re-using information, easy text modification, spelling and word counting, O’Hara and Sellen state that “unlike much of the existing literature comparing paper to screen, none of these benefits have to do with the issues of screen resolution, contrast or viewing angle”.

However, paper still remains “the best medium in support of reading”. The research findings do not suggest that “technologies must become more paper-like or support reading in the same way as paper”, but to understand why paper reading “allow readers to deepen their understanding of the text, extract a sense of its structure, plan for writing, cross-refer to other documents, and interleave reading and writing”.

The research of O’Hara and Sellen, as a laboratory experiment, demonstrates that “certain aspects of the events being observed are controlled” (MacNealy, 1999, p.35). It considered ten subjects, all working at EuroPARC. Such a choice may limit the generalisability of the findings because different education levels, an international audience and different age groups were ignored. Supporting the idea of a careful selection of subjects, MacNealy (1999, p.73) mentions the randomisation theory, which may lead to the ideal research context:

Probably the single most important strategy for quantitative research is randomization. It helps reduce threats to internal and external validity and threats to reliability. The word randomisation, however, does not mean any system of choices that is more or less haphazard. True randomization is achieved only through a systematic method planned in advance – one that ensure that each member of a population has an equal chance of being selected to be part of the sample for investigation.

The research tools provided plenty of data, including body language, which allowed researchers to generate various reactions and validate more data interpretation due to the tape property to be re-viewed, despite the opinion that video-recording is sometimes seen as a reactive tool which may influence subjects to behave unusually.

4. eBooks versus paper-based documents: Benefits and limitations

An eBook is an electronic or digital equivalent of a conventional printed book. As eBooks are available online, the Internet eliminates phases like printing, distribution and paper cost, which are transferred to the users’ place when they need to print them.

The content of eBooks can be randomly accessed, searched, indexed and linked to related documents. They can also be easily customised and read by everybody, everywhere, whenever and simultaneously by many users. These functions are lost once they are printed and taken away.

The eBooks are limited in time. Nobody can predict which software and hardware will be available in fifty years in order to read eBooks stored in e-libraries. When listing strengths and weaknesses of eBooks, Gascoigne (2003, p.17) points out that nowadays not many people would be able to read information stored on 8-inch or 5.25-inch floppy disks.

In addition, Gascoigne mentions that not all types of content can be distributed electronically in eBook format:

Not all books are suitable for eBook distribution. The most suitable books for online viewing are reference books, encyclopaedias, anything else where you just want to look things up.

5. Conclusions

Before the age of reading devices, the computer software lacked an important set of reading facilities: annotation while reading, moving within the document and tangibility. Even if it offers much more than paper reading in terms of searching, editing, customising and inter-connection to related themes and topics, reading electronic documents on screen may require a special effort from the reader side.

Although many studies support an optimistic perspective of the future of reading technologies, researchers and psychologists should coordinate their efforts towards a more efficient reading by using computer technologies. I believe that the progress made in the field has brought the two reading options much closer.

Latest reading devices benefited from e-ink and e-paper technologies with tactile properties which allow users to touch, hold, edit, annotate and take electronic documents with them. Moving paper reading from its traditional medium to the screen appeared to be impossible some 15 years ago.


Gascoigne M. (2003) eBooks and print on demand, Communicator
Kenton O’Hara and Abigail Sellen (1997) A Comparison of Reading Paper and On-line Documents, online
MacNealy M. S. ((1999) Strategies for Empirical research in Writing, Allyn and Bacon
Muter P. (1996) Interface Design and Optimisation of Reading of Continuous Text, online

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