Monday, September 15, 2008

Paper v. PDF

It has been interesting to see how many people have ordered the printed version of the FSP book as compared to downloading the e-version: slightly more than half have ordered the printed version. I thought that the pdf version would prevail over the print version because it is cheaper and faster to obtain, and because many of us do a lot of our reading in e-formats these days.

Part of the preference for print v. pdf may relate to a desire to gaze at (and possess) the glossy graph paper cover of the printed version (note that, contrary to the impression one gets from the low-resolution grayscale image on the preview screen, the actual cover has blue lines), but a more likely explanation may be that many people still prefer to read printed text instead of text on a screen.

Even though I too am fond of printed text in some forms, the number of documents that I read only in electronic format has been increasing steadily. I used to print out numerous drafts of each manuscript, mark up the printouts as I edited them, input my corrections into the file, then print it out again and repeat until it was perfect or I couldn't bear to read it again. I still go through numerous drafts, but now I only print out the almost-final version. In some cases -- e.g. if I am a minor co-author -- I never print the manuscript and only do electronic editing.

I also used to like to have a printed version of some reprints that I downloaded as pdf's, but now I almost never print them out, and I do most of my manuscript and proposal reviews without printing out the document.

Anyone who was on proposal review panel in decades past will remember the giant boxes of proposals that would arrive before a panel meeting. It was very daunting. We read just as many proposals online now, but somehow it doesn't seem quite so overwhelming because the experience isn't accompanied by a dramatic visual representation of forest clear-cutting.

Similarly, those who submitted proposals back in ancient times surely do not miss making 57 photocopies of each proposal, doing battle with the heavy-duty stapler, and then mailing everything off in a big box.

Despite the obvious improvement in quality of some aspects of academic life owing to the decline in use of paper documents, I don't know why my print v. pdf ratio for reading documents has changed so much in other respects. Perhaps the increase in e-reading is related in part to the fact that monitor quality has improved a lot. I have had the same size of monitor in terms of screen dimensions for 15 years, but reading a document on a non-flat lower resolution monitor, however large, in the days of yore was certainly not as easy on the eyes as reading a document on a high-res flat panel monitor. Perhaps also I just got used to reading documents on the screen and find it more efficient.

Print is still my preferred mode for reading books and my morning newspaper, and it is easier for my cats to sit on these than on a laptop keyboard, although they are quite skilled at both. Even so, I have been occasionally tempted by the thought of acquiring a electronic device for downloading and reading books. A friend of mine is quite happy with the Kindle portable reading device she acquired from Amazon, and I can see that there are certain circumstances when it would be very handy. For example, perhaps I could have avoided the trauma last year of being on a trans-Atlantic return flight with nothing to read but a book whose first chapter was narrated by a giraffe fetus.

It would be nice to have many options easily at hand without having to haul around a dozen books on each long trip, but it will be a sad day if my only option is to read books and newspapers on an electronic device, even if my print : pdf reading ratio is increasing year by year.

21 comments:

Janka said...

I ordered the book in print format mostly because books are portable in a way that self-printed PDFs are not, or in any case in a way that is difficult/tedious to make PDFs to be.

I very much liked the book too, thank you!

a physicist said...

Kudos to you! I still prefer printing things out. I like to mark in pen for revising manuscripts; I like to read paper copies on the bus when going to/from work. I do have my share of PDF's and sometimes I read them on the computer, but I'm still skewed toward paper.

And I'm enjoying my paper copy of FSP, the book. :-)

grad student said...

I'm not a pdf convert at all. anything I need to use to write a paper or proposal gets printed and marked up. I don't like to edit on the computer either; I'm not as good at catching errors that way. I don't see myself reading books by some computer thing...I like the real thing.

I did, however, purchase the pdf version of your book FSP. I'm a student and so the proce made a difference. Plus, I can always print it and heavy duty staple it. And, yes, I wanted instant gratification.

Janus Professor said...

I prefer printed copies for editing and reading simply because I have carpal tunnel syndrome. Minimizing all computer usage minimizes symptoms. (But this likely not the case for most of your readers!)

Candid Engineer said...

Until recently, I always printed out journal articles because I like to mark them up with notes for future reference. Then, one of my friends decided to deliver me from the ice age and showed me how to use the highlighting and note features in Adobe Acrobat. All I could say was 'wow'.

When I am reviewing manuscripts, I still like to print them out, however. I usually need to cross-check too many things like text-captions-figures, and I just find that too difficult while scrolling around in a PDF version.

If nothing else, I am delighted by the number of trees saved in the paperless revolution.

John Regehr said...

I bought a paper copy to give to my wife, a non-blog-reading FSP. She loves the book (but still has no plans, that I know of, to start reading blogs). I have a moderate preference for paper myself. It is not clear to me why anyone would buy the PDF when the old posts can be found on the web.

Jennie said...

I bought the PDF for economical reasons.
But in general I only print out a manuscript when I've gotten frustrated with it and need a new perspective. This also usually means I need to read it in a new space away from my office/ computer. At times I'll just print the figures and tables for easy reference as I'm going through the text (I miss having two monitors).
For journal articles I've gotten to the same place where I'll print really important ones or I'll print them because I want to bring them somewhere else to read.
I need to start connecting the pdf files with the references in Endnote-which I think will make my life easier. It's also really nice to have pdf's when I'm not sure exactly the reference I'm thinking about and I can search an entire folder with Acrobat for a certain word.

aceon said...

I am reading your book on my kindle, which my cat cannot really lie down on, but he does try. I have become a kindle evangelist. It's not a replacement for my beloved paper books, just a nice way to keep the paper accumulation rate manageable. I am reading an actual library book as well, which goes in the same category.

Chris said...

Perhaps the book world could take a cue from the music world. for a while now, I've been trying to find vinyl copies of new albums by bands I like, and many smaller record labels have made that option available. Lately, the vinyl comes with a "Free MP3 download" copy of the album. It's nice, because I would have downloaded it anyway. This way, I can listen to the vinyl, enjoy the large artwork, and indulge my OCD collectors needs, and I can burn basically disposable CDs from the MP3s as well as listen on a portable device.

Susan B. Anthony said...

My mom has the Kindle and I tried it out this summer. I liked it a lot and can imagine it would be really convenient for commuting or long-distance travel. It's compact and comfortable to hold and look at, and it can store many different books/documents at once. However, there are a few things about it I find distracting: everything is displayed in the same font in a single column, regardless of whether the source is journal article, a magazine, or a book. Fonts are really important to me for some reason! Also, I miss having a physical cue as to how far along I am in some text: a sense of whether there are more pages on my left or my right, or some idea of when the next break in the text is coming up. However, with the Kindle you can search for phrases and look up words on the fly, both very useful! So I guess I'm on the fence -- maybe I'll buy the next version. I do most of my scientific reading in PDF, except if I need to take it somewhere else or want to mark it up in pen, as others have noted. Blackboard lets my students turn in their papers and homework virtually as well!

ecoeclipse said...

I haven't bought the book in either form .. yet. I am a grad student and haven't yet committed to spending the money, because I plan to buy it in the more expensive paper format. I prefer reading print instead of pdf, but more importantly I want the added visibility of the printed book and that fancy graph paper cover. I want to be able to have the physical book when I'm recommending it to others, for it to be visible on the shelf, where I can point it out as a reference, just as I would a statistics text.

Psych Post Doc said...

I'm still stuck in the paper age. I get headaches from staring at the computer screen too long.

I like having something in front of me and tagible when writing. As a matter of fact, rigth now I have a printed report sitting on my desk as I type up a list of research questions generated from this report.

YAMP said...

I have a hybrid system. I print things many things where I need to carefully check formulae and calculations but often just markup PDF on my tablet when editing student led manuscripts or refereeing for some journals.

I do serious work with fountain pen on paper and cannot envision that ever changing. I can imagine how good tablets will get but I scan whatever I need/want to keep and believe that will always be a sufficient technological advance.

Each form of technology has strengths and weaknesses. I write with a 35 year old pen (gift to my father celebrating my birth) and use a paper diary but have the fewest filing cabinets of all my colleagues (gives me room for a couch). I keep everything current on paper but scan it all to an archive once projects are completed or stale. Tagged PDFs make papers and notes easier to find -- no more decisions about one dimensional filing systems.

I will move to fancy technology in the future once writing or typing on a PDF are as evocative as the smell of my grandmother's leather folio and the sound and feel of my father's pen on paper.

Young Applied Math Prof.

Physics Grad Student said...

I prefer hard-copies any day. Its much easier to move between pages and sections. I wouldn't call this sort of thinking "ice age," its just more convienient, unless you have super-fast typeing and clicking skills and can navigate pdfs as fast as you navigate a book. I usually don't linearly go through journal articles. Typically, I read the introduction, then the conclusion, then various other parts depending on their relevance to I want to learn, its much easier to do this with paper than pdf. Don't even get me started on pdf textbooks. I paid > $100 for a textbook that our library provides online (but you can't print).

lusenok said...

I found that reading from paper calms me down and improves my concentration.
No computer means less desire to "quickly" check that email...and weather....and package tracking...and blogs :)

Anne M. Archibald said...

I read an awful lot from pdf - I don't even own a printer myself - but I find when it comes time to edit I don't have a good alternative to the traditional red pen. You can always make comments in a separate text file (often necessary if the comments have to go by email to a collaborator) but it would be awful nice to be able to make marginal notes and comments. Does anyone have any software recommendations? (I don't have a tablet, and in fact I use Linux, so I'm not too hopeful...)

a physicist said...

YAMP -- what software do you use to organize your tagged PDF's?

steph said...

I have a Kindle and I love it. For someone who travels as much as you, it is a great advantage. You can carry a library around in one small device. And just think how many trees are saved by never buying a book. Also, if you like to read new books that are coming out in hardcover, you can buy the Kindle version for less $$$ and not have to haul around a hardcover copy.

Chelonian (formerly iGollum) said...

I got the book in print format because that makes it easier to lend out to friends - or rather (considering forwarding a pdf if so easy) more likely that they'll read it. It's harder to ignore/forget a book sitting on your coffee table than one file among thousands on your hard drive.

I'm all for the tree-saving side of the paperless revolution, but there are some things for which print>screen.

Anonymous said...

I skimmed the PDF, but will be buying the book as a gift for a FSG (G=grad student).

Anonymous said...

I ordered the print book, both because I can read it when I don't have my computer nearby.

For the purpose of any future age-versus-print popularity correlation study, I am a current 20-something grad student.

I have been reading the blog haphazardly for the past year or so, and it's been great having the whole collection in one package.

Thanks for writing!