Tag Archives: writing

Reading “Books” on the iPad and Kindle

The introduction of “wireless reading devices,” first, Amazon.com’s Kindle and Kindle DX, and now, Apple’s iPad—which is intended for more than reading—has created speculation and some worry and sadness, about the the demise of those other “wireless reading devices” with which we are all familiar—the printed book. Perhaps indeed Amazon and Apple are hastening the end of the printed book’s life. Nonetheless, there is at least one important sense in which the kindle, for its part, extends the influence of the printed book: essential elements of the experience of reading print are reproduced on the Kindle, and presumably, will be on the iPad as well.

The page layout of a good printed book is designed for readability. Traditionally, printed books are formatted with wide margins, a relatively narrow single column of text, single spaced, and justified. Variations on this theme—marginal notes, illumination and rubrication, and the like—are intended to mark a deviation from it, and reflect the author’s intention to influence the reader’s reception of the work. Some variations result from publishers’ need to keep costs down. A cheap paperback has narrow margins, using less paper. Most readers find this hard to hold without obscuring some of the text. It is difficult to find studies reported in the social science literature about why the standard page layout is especially readable. Part of the explanation is probably familiarity. Readers are accustomed to the standard layout. Single spacing, narrow columns, and justified margins may ease the burden on the eye by fixing the size and shape of the block of text it must scan.

The kindle, and most probably, whatever e-Book format is adopted for use with the iPad, preserve this basic layout design. The Kindle’s screen is designed to reproduce the experience of reading a printed book. The screen “reads like real paper,” and the controls for moving through an e-Book are labeled “next page” and “previous page,” and one display’s worth of content is labeled “page X of Y,” this label appearing on each “page” much in the same way it would on a printed page or a print book. One commenter on the Amazon.com web site remarks:

Overall, the DX feels more like text and less like device and comes closer to the stated goal of the Kindle: for the device to disappear, leaving only the joy of reading.

There are important senses in which e-Book readers and the Internet more generally have changed the way we read. One the one hand, the standard page layout is especially well-suited for reading extended passages of text, requiring concentration and a sense of continuity. Digital texts have capabilities not possessed by print books, including hypertext linking. Digital texts can be distributed to vastly more people than can print texts. Until no one reads in the manner in which printed books were intended, e-Books will continue to present text in the same way it is presented now, using the standard, traditional page layout design. Typography and layout of text on the Kindle is relatively primitive; fonts do not have ligatures, and they still appear blocky and angular, in contrast to the gorgeous and subtle characters produced even in Gutenberg’s own time. As e-Books develop, these visual elements will be developed, bringing the e-reading experience that much closer to the experience of reading a printed book.

Some of these remarks have appeared previously in “Print reference sources about evolution,” Evolution: Education & Outreach 2, 2009.

The mentor’s role in improving students’ scientific writing

Some of my friends on twitter have been talking about how to become a better scientific writer, that is, how to write about their research for publication in professional outlets such as peer-reviewed journals and grant proposals. @scientistlady directed me to a page at the Bio Careers site entitled “Skills To Help You Become A Better Scientific Editor.” The posting is written by Chris Gunter, also known as @girlscientist. Chris is an excellent source of information on this topic, having served in a variety of leadership positions in research institutions and scientific publications including Science and Nature.

Chris’ advice is eminently sound: read lots, join a journal club, summarize papers about new research and keep a file of the summaries. Like most good advice about how to improve one’s writing, this advice is sensible and easy to follow, and doing so will take time and effort. There is one bit of advice, however, which I think requires attention: “Ask your mentor to let you help review grant applications or manuscripts.”

Chances are, your PI receives referee requests, All. The. Time. It’s also likely they could use some help. Journal editors are generally just fine with students or postdocs assisting with (let’s be honest, this often means writing) reviews of papers, as long as the editor is notified that you have assisted, and you agree to keep the paper completely confidential. Many journals also mail back the anonymized referee reports after the decision has been made, so you can see how your report stacked up against the others.

Some of the best mentors I have known have conducted mini-study sections for their labs, gathering the graduate students together and parsing out a number of grants among them, then reconvening for detailed summaries. Again, confidentiality is crucial, but this is another great way to learn.

I agree that graduate students should offer their mentors help reading and refereeing papers and grant proposals, and I would think (and hope!) that most mentors would give their students a chance to help in this way. Nonetheless, I think that mentors should approach this as a teaching task that’s taken seriously. The mentor should read the paper or proposal as well, think about what he or she would say in a review, and take the opportunity to have a tutorial session about the proposal or manuscript with the student. Reviewing a paper or proposal takes a significant amount of subject-area knowledge and understanding of the field which most students are not likely to have. The aim of a reviewer is not just to evaluate the methods and conclusions in the paper or proposal, but to evaluate the work’s value as a contribution to advancing the field. Only someone with experience and insight greater in a discipline than what someone just starting out can be expected to have is in a position to evaluate work from this perspective. If mentor and student work on the review together, taking the time to improve the prose style as well as refine its argumentative strategy, the student will benefit enormously. At the same time, the mentor’s direct supervision assures that the review meets a high standard for quality and relevance.

My comments come from a few years’ experience as an editor at Evolution: Education & Outreach, during which time I have come to appreciate the importance of reviews which are able to position the work for review in relation to the central questions of the discipline in which they are intended to make a contribution.

If a PI or mentor were to take my advice, offering students the chance to help with reviews will most likely result in more work for him- or her-self, not less. Nonetheless, the quality of the student’s work will improve in the short and long term, and the quality of his or her reviews will, as well. From a purely self-interested point of view, this will benefit the mentor. He or she who will come to be known as someone who can be trusted to generate insight and to train graduate students who can do so.