I feel compelled to question just how scientific these studies that test reading comprehension on paper vs screen actually are. To approach paper or screens as monolithic entities that can be assumed to contain absolute qualities particular to each’s own medium is a bit obtuse. My guess is that cognitive function and reading comprehension differ within certain media as much as across different media. I’d be interested in seeing studies of how paper weight or ink density or words per line affect comprehension. I can’t imagine it would take much to upend the notion that media or substrate play any sort of definitive role in these matters. The distinction, it seems, is completely arbitrary and purely cultural in nature.
In any event it would be nice to see these studies give some consideration to the simple fact that what they are testing in paper is essentially an interface that has been tuned and perfected over hundreds of years while their tests of the effects of reading on screen are measuring an interface that has only been in common use for a few decades. A simple glance at the trend indicated in the following quote from Ferris Jabr’s piece in Scientific American would seem to bolster the idea that as “screen” reading becomes more sophisticated, and the affordances of that medium are blended more organically with the reader’s expectation, the division between print and screen will rightly be rendered meaningless. Perhaps then, when the media fallacy has been fully exorcised, we can get down to the real work of understanding the overall role of interface in reading.
Since at least the 1980s researchers in many different fields—including psychology, computer engineering, and library and information science—have investigated such questions in more than one hundred published studies. The matter is by no means settled. Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens. And recent surveys suggest that although most people still prefer paper—especially when reading intensively—attitudes are changing as tablets and e-reading technology improve and reading digital books for facts and fun becomes more common. In the U.S., e-books currently make up between 15 and 20 percent of all trade book sales.