Friday, August 25, 2017

Surprise! Physics Profs & Students Prefer Paper Textbooks To E-books

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The article in the current issue of Physics Today ('In The Digital Age, Physics Students And Professors Prefer Paper Textbooks', August, p. 30) really should have come as no surprise to most of us who have either taken advanced physics courses or taught physics.  Paper texts, after all, can easily be marked - including notes left in the margins, and problems partially worked out at the end of chapters.  One can also more rapidly recall a place in a paper text and flick pages in seconds to get there without having to resize screen dimensions etc. or deal with glitches on the text provider's website (One prof, Peter Shawhan,  from Univ. of Maryland - College Park advises all his students to get the paper textbook because it is "easier to navigate").

Of course, e-books are cheaper and that's a huge advantage. The author of the article , Melinda Baldwin, cites the textbook Physics for Scientists and Engineers  with Modern Physics by Douglas Giancoli, which sells for $326.00 compared to the e-text version at $115. 00. Plus, there's not that huge weight to have to lug.  (The paper textbook referenced  weighs in at 6.5 pounds with more than 1300 pages).   This is standard cost for most e -texts is roughly one third or one half the cost of spanking new physics text books.

But look further and you will also see the problems, including the issue of digital rights management, copyright etc.  Many e-texts, for example, can only be downloaded once and cannot be copied to a second device - say from a laptop to smart phone.  This applies as well to all those who have legally purchased the e-text.  Academic publishers may also require students to download proprietary software or apps to use their e-books. Others do not allow downloads at all, instead asking students to create an account on a website and then read the e-book in a browser window while on the internet. No taking the book with you to study anyplace.

Profs cited in the piece stated that the e-text restrictions "are often inconvenient for students and faculty members" who express frustration the books can't just be downloaded to laptops. By contrast, paper texts are totally portable (though heavy) so beat the e-books every time in the 'less hassle' category.

There are also other reasons paper textbooks are still king, according to Caroline Myrberg, an electronic resources librarian at the Jarolinska Institute in Stockholm. According to her (ibid.)

"Books have a static layout. Something that you read at the top on the left hand side will always be at the top on the left hand side, and that aids the memory"

Still, she notes that training and familiarity may be another key to reading preferences of both faculty and students. And Myrberg has shown that "readers who routinely use e-books retain information just as well as when they read print books.."

She adds:

"As long as reading on paper is the default for schools, it will be the default for schools".

Interestingly, a 2014 University of Kansas survey found that the physics and astronomy department had one of the lowest rates of e-textbook adoption at the school. More than 80 percent of physics students and faculty members prefer physical textbooks to electronic ones.

As for yours truly, I still have nearly every physics and astronomy textbook I have ever used, dating back to 1966. These include texts used in courses as well as those I used for teaching courses, such as Hugh Young's Fundamentals of Mechanics and Heat', e.g.

Also the superb textbook 'Spherical and Practical Astronomy' co-authored by the late Heinrich K. Eichhorn who used to be the chairman of the Dept. Of Astronomy at the University of South Florida
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These and other paper textbooks occupy proud places in my library and I make no apologies for preferring paper texts over e-books. Nothing can compare to the exhilaration of being able to select an old physics or astronomy text off the shelf, open its pages and feel the texture of the pages as one thumbs through and reads the words of masters - such as those of Martin Schwarzschiild in his 'Structure and Evolution of the Stars'.   Flicking through actual physical pages, and then reading segments, not only brings back memories (including of meeting Schwarzschiild at a conference in 1984) as well as reinforcing the continuity and endurance of paper texts.

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