Fact Check: 92% of College Students Prefer Paper Books Over eBooks
There’s a story going around this week about a "new" survey which supposedly shows that college students overwhelmingly prefer paper textbooks over ebooks.
You may have read about it in Mashable, TechTimes, LATimes, or in its original source, NBC News. Most of the stories read something like this:
Sorry, technophiles. While the world may be going digital, when it comes to reading, regular books are here to stay.
In a new study conducted by American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron, researchers have found that an overwhelming majority of students prefer physical books — you know, with covers and paper — over e-books for serious reading.
For the study, Baron surveyed over 300 university students from the U.S., Japan, Germany and Slovakia about their reading preferences. When given options between physical books and electronic reading devices, 92% of students said they could concentrate best with physical books.
I read this when NBC News dug it up a a few days ago, and gave it a pass.
Not to sound like a naysayer, but I found a few problems with this story. The survey is actually a couple years old, and what you’re reading in the news is far less nuanced than what the survey report actually said.
This tidbit of information is pulled from Dr Naomi Baron’s book, Words Onscreen, which was published in January 2015 (NBC News’s source was actually an interview in The New Republic from last January). Baron argues in this book that "the virtues of eReading are matched with drawbacks":
Users are easily distracted by other temptations on their devices, multitasking is rampant, and screens coax us to skim rather than read in-depth. What is more, if the way we read is changing, so is the way we write.
I own a copy of Words Onscreen, of course, and from what I can see in the book, the factoid being passed around today is merely one detail from a small survey conducted in 2013.
There’s far too much detail for me to quote it all, but it is there if you want to read it.
Edit: Dr Baron showed up in the comments, and clarified what the 92% meant: "What I actually said was that 92% of students in my survey said they concentrated best when reading in print. My survey never asked about overall personal preference."
She went on to add that more recent survey data showed a similar result: "I now have 429 university students surveyed, spread over 5 countries (the US, Japan, Germany, Slovakia, and India). The last data were collected in Spring 2015," she commented. "The final overall results are resoundingly similar to what was reported in my book, Words Onscreen: 92% say it’s easiest to concentrate when reading print. Moreover, 87% say that if cost were the same, they would prefer print for schoolwork."
Some might argue that the survey is invalid because tech is a topic that shifts quickly, and that the half-life of a consumer survey can be as little as a year, but frankly digital textbooks are in almost the exact same place now as in 2013. (As Dr Baron’s proved in the edited comment above.)
Digital textbook tech hasn’t changed that much in three years, so even though college students have a 100% turnover every three years or so, students today are using many of the same tools as in 2013.
I still don’t like the size of the survey group, though. 300 students spread across four countries is simply too small for any meaningful conclusions, IMO.
What do you think of this survey?
image by UBC
Jon Jermey February 9, 2016 um 4:23 pm
I would prefer a physical textbook, too, if someone else was paying for it. Textbooks are (or should be) consulted briefly at regular intervals, marked up with highlighters, bookmarked with post-it notes, swapped between students and sold after a year or even a semester. None of that is particularly easy with eBooks right now. But it can be; and it will be, once control of the texts passes into the hands of a generation which understands that.
Mark Ritchie February 9, 2016 um 4:56 pm
I’m a lover of ebooks too (hence my daily check-in here), but please oh PLEESE don’t make me use an e-textbook. What a disaster. Never mind the DRM, it just would be awful, especially if there were illustrations.
Naomi Baron February 9, 2016 um 7:58 pm
Since I’m Naomi Baron, here’s some information that might be useful:
(1) The source article (The New Republic) came out in January 2015.
(2) I have no clue why nbcnews.com picked up the piece a year later (followed by other venues).
(3) The New Republic article misquoted me. What I actually said was that 92% of students in my survey said they concentrated best when reading in print. My survey never asked about overall personal preference (except when cost is considered — see (5) below).
(4) I now have 429 university students surveyed, spread over 5 countries (the US, Japan, Germany, Slovakia, and India). The last data were collected in Spring 2015.
(5) The final overall results are resoundingly similar to what was reported in my book, Words Onscreen: 92% say it’s easiest to concentrate when reading print. Moreover, 87% say that if cost were the same, they would prefer print for schoolwork. (About 81% would prefer print for pleasure reading.) Other published studies of university students have reported the same kinds of results.
There is obviously much variation in what readers like for reading platform. But if you want to know about university students in 2016 (at least statistically), I suggest you ask them. And I’ll bet you will find results quite similar to mine.
Nate Hoffelder February 9, 2016 um 8:05 pm
Thank you for the context, Professor.
Nate Hoffelder February 9, 2016 um 8:31 pm
In response to your comment, I had caught that the TNR article was a year old (I just made the mistake of skipping over it to the book), and I can’t explain why it was dug up, either. Everyone else picked it up because it made for excellent clickbait, but I can’t tell you how or why NBC News posted it.
I appreciate that you explained how TNR misquoted you; I had decided not to elaborate because I couldn’t tell where they got that detail.
Now I will go update the post with additional detail.
Paul February 9, 2016 um 9:11 pm
I wonder if the platform used to read these text books was a 6″ ereader. Though I am long past college, most of the text books that I had were large format; a complete page would not be able to be shown on a 6″ screen requiring scrolling to view. I would conjecture that if the students surveyed had a large screen ereader such as the Sony DPT-S1 or one of the Onyx M96 series, they would have a different, more positive response to using digital texts.
Naomi Baron February 10, 2016 um 8:50 pm
In my studies, I asked on what digital platform students were doing their reading. When it came to reading for schoolwork, that device was primarily laptops or desktops. For pleasure reading, there was more variety (e.g., in Japan, 70% did most of their pleasure reading on mobile phones). I agree that screen size matters. But keep in mind that in universities in the US, there is a growing move to make academic reading available on mobile devices — which means tablets, smartphones, and even smartwatches. That is, the screen real estate is getting smaller, not larger for most students.
Frank February 11, 2016 um 4:04 pm
I agree with Professor Baron’s results, for a textbook I would rather use paper.
Qué formato es mejor para leer un libro, ¿el papel o el ebook? December 1, 2017 um 1:00 pm
[…] un estudio sobre qué formato es mejor para leer, realizado por Naomi Baron, de la American University, […]