Academic Productivity and E-Books

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Libraries’ spending for e-books is increasing dramatically; and Duke Libraries have developed a detailed and thoughtful strategy to help drive the development of optimal e-book functionality for researchers.

I reviewed An economist gets lunch last week in its Barnes & Noble e-book format to see how close this particular e-book tech and tool suite came to matching my own expectations for e-book functionality and academic productivity. I defined “academic productivity” as interacting in a time-effective way with the e-text to produce a semi-scholarly end product — the book review.

The “Bad” (No cloud storage or syncing) – Before starting the process, I had hoped that the highlighting and annotations features of the Nook for PC software would allow my interactions to be saved in the cloud and synced to my Nook Simple Touch e-reader. Alas, this is not the case. Highlights and annotations made on one Nook software platform or device, stay on that device and are not saved to the cloud and synced across a user’s Nook devices. This has been a known problem with Nook for at least a year, and may negatively impact its usefulness for academic work. I was limited to working productively on the Nook for PC software on my work computer.

No copy & paste available – It’s understandable that publishers and authors wouldn’t want large amounts of text to be easily copyable; but the inability to copy & paste small amounts of text for quotes in more scholarly papers means users will be re-keying text. A publisher of CD-ROM-based theological e-texts, Libronix, permits copy and paste, and automatically embeds a properly formatted citation following the copied and pasted text. E-books would certainly be more useful if this feature were more widespread.

The “Good (interface & highlighting tool) – The Nook for PC software has a clean interface and the collapsible side menus for the table of contents and tools make it easy to use. Text in an e-book can be selected for highlighting or annotation with a right mouse button click. Both highlights & annotations are saved to their own lists in collapsible side columns. A highlight will display about the first 15 characters of the highlighted text; and an annotation will display the same number of characters for a reader’s note. Both of these tools are handy when you need to navigate the text to re-locate key passages. But the highlight and annotation fill colors are exactly the same, and cannot be customized. This makes it difficult to distinguish between the two types of user interaction when viewing a page without the side columns expanded.

Suggested improvements – The lack of syncing needs to be corrected soon. While my personal preference for working with and producing digital text is still a standalone physical keyboard & mouse, more users than ever are interacting with e-books on tablets, phones, and e-readers. The inability to view and edit my interactions with e-text across devices was an annoyance, and tied me to a single device and location. Other users may find this defect to be a deal-breaker when choosing an e-reader product family for purchase.

Despite the above criticisms, I still found the experience of reading, and marking for later review, passages in the e-book to be a more time-effective way for me to interact with text than working with the print book when I needed to produce a deliverable. It will be interesting to see how well e-book publishers and their software developers react to the needs of the academic market, as opposed to the consumer reading market. Librarians have a key role to play in communicating and making sure publishers understand the unique needs of our users and market.

© Reviewer: Carlton Brown & Ford Library – Fuqua School of Business.
All rights reserved.


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