Recently mistah.charley left the following comment for me:

You state that you’ve switched from EndNote to Zotero; however, “I
still tend to print out the journal articles and read them on paper,
highlighting things I might need later.”

But you don’t need to
do that on paper; you can do it inside the computer – as is implied in
my suggested “tag line” for Zotero, “It’s all done with electrons.”

This got me thinking about reading.  mistah.charley is absolutely right, in that the whole point of using Zotero is to make it easier to find all those notes/highlighting that I do now.  However I find it difficult to read documents of any length (more than 2-3 pages) on screen.

ClearText is better than standard text, in that is more like paper and easier on the eyes, but that hardly helps when most reading material is in PDFs.  ClearText can’t fix a bad scanning job.  (Of course neither can printing…)

A study in 1995 (before cleartext) found that people read 30% slower on a computer screen than on paper.  More recent estimates have brought that lower due to better LCD technology, better quality scanning of PDFs and other innovations.  So let’s assume that speed isn’t so much the reason for not wanting to read online.

One potential problem with reading long documents online is the attention-span issue.  When I am online I suddenly have ADD – I read, write, check email, do searches, etc.  I am used to skimming information on my screen and moving on, not studying it in any depth.  Anything I want to look at in depth and really think about (up to and including blog posts) I print.  This position was nicely summarized last March in Locus Magazine.

On the other hand, it could be more an issue of the type of work being done.  Microsoft did a study looking at active reading tasks (specifically read a 4-page article and summarize it) under 4 different conditions.  They were updating a 1997 study that had found paper far superior in all conditions, trying to take into account the changes in technology over that time. 

With a sample size of 12, all at a technology company (probably microsoft itself) this study is hardly representative but the findings are interesting nonetheless.  This table sums up the preferences for different activities:

The conditions in the left hand column were a bit strange to me:

I mean really – who besides programmers have multiple monitors.  I understand their concept – people have different ways of taking notes or annotating a document as well as writing a new one; they had divided the task into annotating (ie writing on the page you were reading), taking notes (writing on a different page) and writing (writing up your summary on yet another page) and provided either paper, a window or a screen for each activity. 

Still the results are not entirely unexpected – Paper is still preferred for reading, although in their study tablets tied.  I can see that if the screen is of a high quality, but more for when I was annotating a document.  Using a tablet for note-taking is just like using paper if I have a separate tablet, but not at all like it if I am using just one tablet (more normal in daily life).  The same goes for writing; it is one thing if you have separate screens to do the work on and another if you are flipping windows.  A computer screen (vertical with a keyboard) is preferred for writing. 
(Also not surprising, since most of us these days type faster than we
write). 

I find their conclusions amusing, if suspect.  The multiple monitor situation is entirely unrealistic for the average user.  And even then, they still found paper superior in every condition. 

I don’t know where I’m going with this.  I DO know that I will continue to use Zotero to take notes and should probably spend a minute or two to go back and highlight key points in the electronic document even if I print it to read.  I’m starting to wonder if a tablet PC wouldn’t be worth my while though….then I could do that annotating and highlighting once…..

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