Are E-Books Unscholarly?

I found myself feeling somewhat dismayed reading Michael E. Smith’s grumpy post about e-books at Publishing Archaeology.

One of his complaints is about the inability to cite a specific page number in e-books. He asks “Is it no longer considered important that a reader be able to cite a specific page number in a book?”

I think the answer is clearly “no.” If a resource is available digitally, then one can easily search for a phrase and find a reference. There is no need to cite a specific page number of an electronic resource.

Most of the rest of the post is complaining about some of the platforms used to deliver electronic content. Some of these are indeed clunky or lacking in necessary functionality. But the fact that I can instantly access a book or article more than makes up for those things, even though I too would love to see improvements.

So my own answer to the question in the title of this blog post would be “Absolutely not!” The earliest codex, I am sure, was not able to be seen as providing a definitive successor to the scroll. But it was. Transitional periods in technology can be frustrating to live in. But they are also exciting. The fact that research is so much easier, in terms of the logistics of getting access to primary and secondary source materials one needs, continues to take my breath away.

I get grumpy too sometimes, when things don’t work. But other scholars being grumpy about the fact that technology is changing, and simply preferring the old to the new, makes me even grumpier.

How do you feel about electronic publishing, DRM and platform-related issues, and the use of such materials for scholarly research?

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  • Rick Sumner

    In my own ebook collection, pdfs outnumber epub and kindle files by about ten to one. I can cite page numbers just fine in most cases.

    I’m actually boycotting books not available digitally, though I’m not quite principled enough in my stand, since I broke it for Goodacre and Verenna.

  • Brian Dyk

    I’ve had the lovely experience of living on both sides of the aisle on this — first in academia and now in my current position where I help colleges and universities transition to digital content. As such, I’ve heard these arguments more than once . . . in fact too many times. Two quick points:

    1. You hit it on the head when you mentioned that we’re in the transition phase. Yup — as such, there are still some bugs to be worked out over time. This also has created a complication where there are many different e-book platforms and none of them work the same and they are not always compatible with each other. There has been some progress on that front, but like early computing it will take a few technological generations before we settle down on a few select formats. It seems to me that most of his complaints are directed to the platform and not to the e-book concept itself.

    2. Second, and most importantly, there is a generational gap. Many professors (as did I) grew up in a world where e-books were unheard of. Our reading habits and our research habits are largely based in physical texts (raise your hand if you can remember using a CARD CATALOG!) However, we do have to remember that most of our students come from a very technological generation that is far more comfortable working with digital content. In fact, many students now expect to be able to access content in a digital format. As such, it is no longer an “if” content will be digitized, it is merely when it will be.

  • Eric Barreto

    This is an especially odd critique for scholars in Bible and the ancient world. Our primary sources are cited not by page numbers but chapter and verse, whether we are citing the New Testament or Philo. That is, there is an even better way to cite our sources than page numbers if we create labels for chapters and paragraphs in our digital works.

  • David Evans

    I love my e-readers, but I do find the lack of page number references difficult. Searching for a long phrase with the rather slow on-screen keyboard and my fat fingers is a real pain.

    I think in not too many years it will be practical to search on e-readers using voice recognition (my cheap smartphone is already pretty good at it). At that point there will be very little reason not to use them.

  • Marta L.

    The search method works fine if someone uses an exact quotation, but what about situations where I want to refer to a specific page by page number but without precise quotations? Another disadvantage is my rather non-linear note-taking (circled phrases connected by squiggly lines that mean different things, based on the kind of squiggly line, mostly).

    I love my eBooks and for me the disadvantages are very much outweighed. But I do think people who see disadvantages have a legitimate point.

  • James Dowden

    The saddest thing about these eBook programs that don’t really work is that they’re reinventing the wheel: a PDF book is easily readable with mature software on a variety of platforms, and furthermore is less liable to presentational issues.

  • brockota

    A couple of the e-book platforms I use automatically insert a citation when I paste the quote anyway. I haven’t looked close enough at it to see if it’s MLA or APA (probably able to configure that in the setting anyway), but I’m certain it’s enough information to get me to the source.