The Guardian reported yesterday on a new study which showed that reading on a Kindle led test subjects to recall fewer details from the story, leading some to speculate that we've reached the edges of ebook usability.
While Nicholas Carr might want to use this paper to sound the death knell of ebooks, I think further study is warranted.
From the article:
The study, presented in Italy at a conference last month and set to be published as a paper, gave 50 readers the same short story by Elizabeth George to read. Half read the 28-page story on a Kindle, and half in a paperback, with readers then tested on aspects of the story including objects, characters and settings.
But instead, the performance was largely similar, except when it came to the timing of events in the story. "The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, ie, when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order."
The researchers suggest that "the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does".
The Guardian only briefly mentions the rest of the study, where the Kindle group tested about the same as the control group.
Luckily for us, The NY Times covered this story on Sunday and they crafted a handy little graphic to show us how the test scores differed (click to enlarge):
As you can see, in most categories there wasn't a huge difference between the two test groups. The one exception is time and events, which is quite similar to plot reconstruction.
So does this mean that there are limits to reading comprehension on ereaders and tablets? Maybe, but maybe not.
For one thing, this study included only two experienced Kindle users, and as you can imagine that might skew the results.
But there are other studies which could shed some light on the issue. The paper referenced by The Guardian does mention a related study, but I don't think it's relevant. Tell me if you can see the structural problem with the study:
Mangen also pointed to a paper published last year, which gave 72 Norwegian 10th-graders texts to read in print, or in PDF on a computer screen, followed by comprehension tests. She and her fellow researchers found that "students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally".
Luckily that's not the only study on the topic.
I've been following this question for a few years now, and while it is clear that enhanced ebooks don't enhance education that is certainly no reason to throw out the baby with the bath water.
I also know of a 2012 paper which showed that test subjects who read on a Nook scored slightly higher on reading comprehension tests. Like the latest study that older research was based on a small group of test subjects, so it's not possibly to use one to refute the other, but it does suggest that further study is warranted.
All in all, I would say that it is too early to draw a conclusion either way.