Are you reading this digitally or in print?

Profiles of Norwegian Science

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Hard copy or e-book? It may have an effect on your learning experience.

Agder, Norway

Ah, the good old days of feeling paper in our hands while we read! Getting newsprint all over our fingers, marking up the walls, and spilling coffee on a valuable book. Which is presumably better than spilling coffee on a valuable laptop.

Is paper or digital better for reading, learning, and retaining? How does “better” balance speed, retention, depth of understanding, enjoyment, flexibility, possibilities to share text, and resource use for producing and accessing the publication? Does it depend on the person and purpose for reading? Norwegian research has looked into some of these questions.

Researchers in Stavanger and Oslo worked with teenagers in schools to produce a pair of scientific articles. The first study divided 72 pupils into two groups, giving one group a reading in hard copy and the other group the same reading as a computer file to be read on screen. The group reading the hard copy did much better on post-reading comprehension scores, indicating possible inhibitors in understanding when reading from a screen.

The second scientific article explained how 143 students read different parts of the same text on an e-reader and as a book. Male students and students who do not typically read a lot preferred the e-reader, whereas hard copies were favored by students who already read frequently. The researchers suggest that perhaps using e-readers would encourage reading among those with limited enthusiasm for it, although they are rightly cautious about presuming a direct cause-and-effect.

This is not just about formal learning, such as in school, but also about what we read for ourselves on our own time. A University of Bergen study surveyed 125 readers of a print edition of a Norwegian women’s magazine and interviewed 14 of them. All respondents were women, although that was not intentional. Not much of a digital divide was found, in fact, the respondents are regularly online—but they still preferred to read magazines offline.

The scientific analysis focused on how reading involves the experience of holding an object. These readers were used to holding the magazine and were unlikely to switch to online reading because they liked the feel, visual approach, and experience of holding paper. Yet the comparison was with the magazine’s website. Using an e-reader or reading a file of the magazine’s full layout might have produced different results.

So this point was investigated at the University of Stavanger with colleagues in France. Thirty-two women and 18 men, with an average age of 24, were divided into two groups to read a story, which took them about an hour. Then, they were tested on their reading comprehension. In the end, little difference emerged between the two groups.

The main divergence was that those reading in print were better able to reconstruct and place the story’s event sequence. The researchers suggest that the difference might come from the sense of turning pages as well as ease in flipping pages back and forth.

Yet 48 of the 50 people who participated in this research were not regular e-reader users. There might be an influence from how we are trained to read, how we have trained ourselves to read, and familiarity with a specific reading medium. Questions also emerge about what would happen if the reading material does not rely on a sequence of events.

Similarly, it is hard to say how much of the preference for hard copies is from the digital material’s format. And, when completing the reading comprehension surveys, does it make a difference if participants do so on paper or on a digital device?

What proportion of the results merely reflects a snapshot of contemporary times? Are we transitioning from print to digital, especially formulating ways to provide an equivalent visual and tactile experience with e-readers? Or is the human brain hard-wired with an aversion to screens? What will happen to preferences and understandings as generations and technologies shift?

We can say that, for now, the death of the so-called “Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge” device (or BOOK) has been exaggerated. Even if preferences for print diminish in the future, then it could become chic to go retro, as with music records. In an era of human-caused climate change, we can also use full bookshelves for capturing and storing carbon.


This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.