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E-publishing gathers pace


(September 2000)


A number of developments in August and September suggest that electronic publishing is just around the corner. In the U.S. college market, electronic textbooks are gaining popularity on college campuses as more materials become available in a digital format, offering advanced features such as audio and video while costing the same as or less than traditional textbooks.


The new products tend to offer note-taking and highlighting capabilities or audio and video clips. A number of multimedia texts are now being developed for Web use, with students who have signed up being able to use either a CD or a password that gives access to downloadable content.


The potential is great, since the same system can foster companion items such as study guides, discussion lists, search programs and the ability to update content. At the same time, publishers have been able to reduce inventory costs and make serious savings on paper.


One of the problems is that there is, as yet, no single standard for e-books. The portable document format (PDF) and the open e-book (OEB) format are the front-runners, but it is likely that there will be only one winner in the long run. Adobe's PDF file format offers embedded digital-rights management. It allows type layout produced in PageMaker or other desktop publishing packages to be carried across, with illustrations appearing in pre-determined places so that the result looks and feels very much like the original document.


Adobe Acrobat Readers have been heavily downloaded for use on PCs, but the OEB Forum, whose 59 members include IBM, HarperCollins, and even Adobe, believes that publishers will opt for the more open OEB. OEB's flexible image and text layout allows formatting to scale with desktop screens and smartphone displays alike and, in the long-term, this is likely to win out over a system which adopts a Henry Ford marketing policy (his model T Fords came in any color you liked - so long as it was black).


There is big money at stake because the winner will be able to charge for every online book transaction. The OEB-formatted Microsoft Reader and Gemstar's e-book devices are major OEB contenders, but and some other vendors are reported to be using both formats until a single winner emerges. and Microsoft have partnered in a venture to create the first major online store for electronic books. As part of the agreement, Microsoft has released the latest version of its Reader software, designed to make text on a computer screen more readable. Customers of the online bookstore will be able to download and read books on the computer screen or print single paperback copies on demand. It is reported that Barnes and Noble are also looking at purchasing the electronic rights to books still under copyright, which would place them as both publishers and booksellers.


One drawback for the new e-books is underlined by research reported at the August 5 annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Washington. In brief, students who read essays on a computer screen found the text harder to understand, less interesting and less persuasive than students who read the same essay on paper, according to P. Karen Murphy, Joyce Long, Theresa Holleran and Elizabeth Esterly.


The researchers had 131 undergraduate students read two articles that had appeared in Time magazine: some read from the magazine, some read the exact same text after it had been scanned into a computer. They were surprised to find that students found paper texts easier to understand and somewhat more convincing.


"It may be that students need to learn different processing abilities when they are attempting to read computerized text," said Murphy, who pointed out that while this is a preliminary study, it casts doubt on the assumption that computerized texts are essentially more interesting and, thus, more likely to enhance learning. Here, however, it is necessary to recall one of the truisms of research in this area, as explained by Lee J. Cronbach, in the 1970s.


If you are going to compare a horse and a camel, said Cronbach, you need to compare a good horse and a good camel; the researcher should not just take two camels and saw the humps off one of them. In this case, the hump-sawing is minimal, but no attempt was made to use the special advantages of electronic communication. A fair test would involve giving two content experts the same amount of time to take a set of information, and develop it into a worthwhile use of the selected medium, rather than holding a contest between a horse and a bicycle, and deciding that neither is very useful for crossing deserts.


The study involved undergraduates, 64 men and 67 women, who all read two essays, one involving doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients and the other on school integration. They completed questionnaires on the content before and after the reading to analyze their knowledge and beliefs about the subjects in the texts. After they had completed the reading, the students completed questionnaires that measured their understanding of the essays and that also asked them about how persuasive and interesting they thought the essays were.


The subjects were in three groups. One read the print essays and responded to the questionnaires on paper, a second group read the essays on a computer and then answered the questionnaire on paper, and the third group read the essays on the computer screens and responded to the questionnaire online as well.


The students in all three groups increased their knowledge after reading the texts, and the beliefs of students in each group became more closely aligned with those of the authors, but those who read the essays on the computer screen found the texts more difficult to understand. This was true regardless of how much computer experience the students reported.


Murphy commented on the Internet: "There is no reason they should be harder to understand. But we think readers develop strategies about how to remember and comprehend printed texts, but these students were unable to transfer those strategies to computerized texts." She added that they found the computerized text less interesting - as would be expected, she said, if they had trouble understanding it. The computer-text students also found the text less convincing, and once again, says Murphy, this may be due to their problems in understanding what was in front of them. There were, however, no differences between those responding on paper, and those responding online, for what that is worth.


This may well reflect a problem that examiners will have to come to grips with over the next few years: students in schools and universities are not capable of sustained composition and writing by hand any more. They do not use pens in the same way and, more importantly, composition by keyboard and screen does not proceed in quite the same way. On screen, paragraphs are deleted or transposed, extra text is inserted, and structures are changed on the fly, and a student used to the freedom of screen and keyboard can be severely repressed when forced into using just pen and paper.


The next few years will see a number of publishers engaging in what Marshall McLuhan called 'rear-view mirror driving', the sort of thinking that saw a steam locomotive called an 'iron horse', an automobile 'a horseless carriage' and labeled radio as 'wireless telegraphy', the sort of thinking that led Hollywood to put vaudeville performers on the large screen, that led television producers to put radio performers on the small screen, and led the British Post Office to say that telephones would never take off, as people had messenger boys to do all that.


The e-book medium will shape itself as time goes on, and many of the early standards will fall by the wayside. The bad Dickens Dickens, Charles e-book will be the text of several novels and no more. The good one will explain why dinosaurs are mentioned in the first paragraph of Bleak House (it was published just after the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, where dinosaurs were first made popular), what 'wards in chancery' were, and so on, with hot links in the text or marginal links. A truly excellent Dickens e-book would offer a way of electronically folding the page corner, a character list, and so on.


The brilliant Dickens e-book might offer Gustav Doré's pictures of the poor in and perhaps New York's 'other half' contemporary maps and illustrations, newspaper reports, and so the list would grow. The point always would be to provide an optional broadening of the base, comparisons, correlations, the links that assemble factoids into knowledge. Scholarship, now seen as a fairly odd and obscure habit, would begin to pay off, not only for the scholars, but for those who have the chance to follow in their footsteps and really enjoy what Dickens has to offer.


For other material on e-publishing, see Science communications, August 1997; Serious publishing, August 1999; Paperless publishing?, September 1999; Major journals join to offer better electronic publishing, November 1999 and BioMed Central brings a new era, May 2000.