Why Ebooks Fail as Research Tools

Mar 26, 2012

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Article ImageA student turns her tablet on to read three chapters assigned to her this week. As she reads, she comes across a topic that she would like to learn more about. She leaves her ebook, opens a web browser and runs a search. The ebook might be a great source of information on a single topic, but it fails as a research tool. Why?

Ebooks represent salvation for many publishers -- the medium that introduced them to the digital age, and became a new, if not perfect, source of revenue. The incredible growth and popularity of ebooks continues to make headlines, including the news that ebooks have outsold print on Amazon for almost a year. Apple's introduction of iBooks 2 also reflects both technology companies' and publishers' common expectations that ebooks will only grow in popularity.

The continued growth of ebooks in both academic and enterprise markets is all but certain. Regardless of the market, however, ebooks fail at one critical activity: conducting research. Much of this has to do with the fact that many ebooks are the digital equivalent of their printed predecessors. The format is oriented to a process or technology, not the user needs.

Both students and professionals primarily look for three criteria in a research tool: access to as much validated information on a topic as possible and from anywhere, intuitive search capabilities and the ability to manipulate content. Ebooks fail to meet the last two of these three criteria due to problems that arise when presenting a book in a digital format.

The first failure of the ebook deals with quantity and availability of information. Much like their physical counterpart, ebooks offer a fixed number of pages with a finite amount of information. When conducting research, people are accustomed to having access to vast amounts of information that is easily searchable through engines, API's, or databases like JSTOR. Ebooks alone do not allow the flexibility and search-ability for successful, efficient research. End users don't care if the answer is found in book, journal, or other format -- they just want answers. They want easy access to content, and the ability to search across many credible sources at once is a critical element of research. 

For instance, if our student is an engineer studying material properties and would like to learn more about a particular material, she could manually gather and look through multiple ebooks that contain information about that material -- just as she would have if those books were in hardcover. Alternatively, she could go to a search engine, type in the material name and instantly have access to a wide variety of content answering her question. In an age where people can enter a search query and almost instantly have access to thousands of sources, manually identifying and searching through ebooks related to the topic in question is a less appealing, highly inefficient research method. The ebook has brought the cumbersome limitations of its offline counterpart with it to the digital realm.

The ebook fails again when considering the manipulability of its content. Sure, the technology is improving with new features, but high-level interactivity is still not the norm. This limitation is particularly visible in the sciences. For instance, even if the student researching material properties finds data on the material in question, she has a limited ability to run calculations inside the ebook or to easily export the data into a program that could facilitate this manipulation. This disjoints the research process and makes it less likely for the student to turn to an ebook. This limitation isn't necessarily a problem with the ebook model itself, but with constraints arising from the unwillingness or inability of publishers to part from the traditional book form.

While the ebook model fails to meet the first two criteria for a research tool, it succeeds in one area: validated, quality information. While conducting research online offers faster access to a wider amount of information than is available through print or ebooks, information found on web pages is often inconsistently fact checked or referenced. People will often trade information quality for speed. This sacrifice is not only risky to a student's academic performance; it can also be seriously dangerous if an engineer is using that research for real world application. This presents a problem for research done in academic and professional settings, as people must ensure that information used for everything from a class paper to a company decision is valid.

While all large scientific, technical, and medical publishers offer search across ebooks on the web nowadays, it is restricted to full text and content from individual publishers. Tools that combine the power of flexible, interactive content offered through the web with access to validated content from multiple publishers can provide the best possible research solution. This is the type of solution that both companies and academic institutions are demanding, and publishers must adapt to how users interact with digital content outside of the ebook if they want their content to remain relevant for research purposes.

"Ereader and Stack of Books" image from Shutterstock.