Editorial: Print Is Not Dead | AIChE

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Editorial: Print Is Not Dead


This ia an expanded version of the editorial that appears in the May issue of CEP

Discussion Central, AIChE’s online community for professional members, recently dealt with the question “Is print dead?” — a topic that is near and dear to me. It is a question we in the publishing business wrestle with continually. (Full disclosure: I have a strong bias toward print. When I access sources online, I usually print the material and read it on paper, including the discussion thread about whether print is dead.)

Those who participated in the discussion noted that digital/online media have much to offer — such as searchability, the ability to explore related material via links, and often lower costs — and play an important role in information exchange. But I was heartened to see that they overwhelmingly believe that print definitely is not dead. Among the comments in favor of print: It’s nice to page through newspapers and come across articles that might be missed online. It can be difficult to follow some topics in an electronic format. Electronic is fine for short, not-too-technical material, but print is better for long and/or technical content. Printed volumes will last for hundreds or thousands of years, but digital records rely on technology that is ever-changing. Print is easier to navigate, which is important when you need to refer to an equation or figure on a previous page. Print layout makes it easy to find particular sections. One person likes the feel of the paper copy and being able to jot notes.

I wrote about the print vs. digital question a few years ago (“Print It or Forget It,” CEP, Nov. 2014, p. 3) and reported on several studies that found we remember and comprehend better what we read on paper. The neuroscience behind this and other differences between print and digital is interesting.

Researchers at Temple Univ. used eye tracking, core biometrics (heart rate, sweat, motion, respiration), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of brain activity to study consumers’ responses to physical (direct mail) and digital advertising. They found that participants processed digital ad content quicker, but spent more time with physical ads. People had a stronger emotional response to physical ads and remembered them better than the digital alternatives. Although slower to draw one’s eye at first exposure, physical ads leave a longer-lasting impact for easy recall when making a purchase decision. Physical ads triggered activity in the area of the brain (ventral striatum) associated with a higher perceived value and desirability of the advertised product or service, which can signal a greater intent to purchase. I hope the ads in CEP activate your ventral striatum.

Other fMRI-based research in the U.K. concluded that tangible materials leave a deeper footprint in the brain. Physical material generated more activity in the left and right parietal regions of the brain, which are associated with the integration of visual and spatial information. This, they say, suggests that physical material is more real to the brain — it has a meaning and a place, and it is better connected to memory because it engages with its spatial memory networks. Physical materials also produced more brain responses connected with internal feelings, suggesting greater internalization of the ads.

Ferris Jabr writes in Scientific American that to our brains, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit — the brain regards letters as physical objects because it does not have another way of understanding them. He says, “The human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure … similar to the mental maps we create of terrain, such as mountains and trails, and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices,” he says.

Jabr continues: “In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains — the left and right pages — and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail — there's a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text. In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones, and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. … It is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text. … Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks, and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.”

This explains why reading in print allows us to remember the location of certain information in a book simply by page and text layout. So, for instance, if you are a regular reader of CEP, you know that you can open the issue and turn one page to get to my editorial; that the Catalyzing Commercialization and AIChE Journal Highlight columns run at the end of the Update section; that Institute News is generally at the back of the magazine; and that the calendar of AIChE meetings, courses, and webinars is opposite the back cover. Why don’t we always place the other departments in the same order and in fixed locations in every issue? Feature articles begin on a right-hand or left-hand page based on the graphics in the article and where they are called out in the text; we try very hard to make sure the image appears on the same two-page spread as the discussion of it. Depending on article lengths and which side the articles start and end on, we often place one-page columns, as well as ads, between articles. I hope you enjoy following the trail we have laid for you through this issue. If you’re reading this in the print version, I invite you to go to the CEP website or the CEP app to read a longer version of this editorial, where my writing is not constrained to a 4.375-in.-wide by 7.875-in.-high text box.

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