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First of all let me apologize for the title, as it is perhaps very vague. The issue is as follows; I have stopped printing my articles and instead starting reading them on screen via my library manager software (Papers2).

The problem is that I find it's MUCH harder to focus when I am reading on screen and thus takes much longer for me to read articles on a screen. It's almost like I get some sort of digital dyslexia... As possible reasons, I figure small things like new mail notifications, screen brightness, sitting/standing posture etc all weigh in somehow. But I suspect that the subliminal association of "how I normally read stuff on a screen" might have a larger effect. In other words since I am normally skimming through stuff when I am in front of the screen, my brain might try to take in information the same way when I am trying to read an article, which of course is a recipe for failure...

I wonder if it's just me or if this is a common phenomenon? Additionally I would appreciate if I could get some tips on how to tackle this problem. Obviously printing all papers is an option but it's neither elegant (creates a mess on/around my desk) nor is it environment-friendly.

  • It's a good question, I'm considering buying a tablet (e.g. Nexus 10) for that very reason: having a device dedicated to paper reading (i.e., not distraction), and where the body posture is similar to that of reading an actual paper. I haven't switched yet, so I can't say if it will work though. – user102 Mar 6 '13 at 14:53
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    I think this is really just practice. It'll get better over time, and the environment will thank you. I'm also considering buying Nexus 10, it's wonderful, had it in my hands just today. – Eekhoorn Mar 6 '13 at 15:00
  • somehow a related question with great answers academia.stackexchange.com/questions/5786/… – seteropere Mar 6 '13 at 22:15
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    I think the answer will depend critically on if what you are planning on reading includes math, plots, tables, or photographs. – StrongBad Mar 7 '13 at 9:31
  • @DanielE.Shub mostly text; long paragraphs full of explaining gene/protein interactions etc. So not formulas, some plots and tables. I have to ask, however, in what sense does that matter? – posdef Mar 7 '13 at 10:31

10 Answers 10

10

I have terrible eyes and this is a very real problem for me. Although I'm not an eye care specialist I can say anecdotally that there are a few things that have really made all the difference for me.

First: if you wear glasses, get the computer lenses. Usually they are some kind of an off yellow to cut glare. These really help to reduce eye strain.

Second: look away from the screen every few minutes. Try to focus on objects away from the screen that let you change your focal distance. I find that doing this for just a few moments at the end of every paragraph really helps.

EDIT: Use natural light if you can. I've found that turning my desk so that the ambient light from the window illuminates my screen has also helped me a lot. You have to be careful of glare but when I finally got everything situated it made a notable difference.

Third: media counts a lot. If you're going to use a tablet or eReader look for something that has front/side lighting. Many people like the new Kindle paperwhite but I prefer the Kobo glo. If you're looking for a more stationary solution then I highly recommend a good projector. Prices have come down quite a bit and you can now get an 'OK' projector for just a couple of hundred dollars. It will take a little bit to acclimate yourself to the new reading format but once you do I think you'll find that you like it. I know that I do.

  • 3
    Another comment from a person wearing glasses (not worth a full answer). I used to wear lenses before, and it became almost impossible to work behind a screen for >1h. My doctor said that the brain tends to slow down the blinking rate when looking at a screen, to "make sure we miss as little as possible". Eyedrops should be used regularly (every 2-4hrs) if you're wearing lenses -- but in the end I also found eyeglasses with protective computer lenses more a comfortable option (and more healthy as confirmed by my doctor). I'd guess that's why looking away/focusing other things helps so much. – penelope Mar 7 '13 at 9:36
  • @penelope interesting point. I wonder why the brain and the eyes are not as strained when reading from a hard-copy. I mean the information is the same, so the level of attention your sub-conscience dedicates to reading should in theory be the same. – posdef Mar 7 '13 at 10:33
  • this is a combination of what I think I remember from my doctor and what I probably concluded since on my own (so not guaranteed correct): looking at a (highly illuminated) screen with changing content makes you brain expect a dynamical content (e.g. movie; if you scroll, the content of the screen is changing + any notifications showing up), while looking at a paper, the content is known to be static (if you turn pages, that's just a new object with static content) – penelope Mar 7 '13 at 12:49
  • @penelope sounds reasonable :) – posdef Mar 8 '13 at 9:24
5

I suggest a number of things to consider.

1) If you're suffering from glare issues or similar, try to reposition yourself so that the light comes from behind your monitor and reduces glare.

2) As has been suggested in comments, try a tablet. I personally use an iPad for much of my paper reading and it works well. Some advocate the smaller tablets because of their lighter weight (the iPad does feel a little heavy over time, and it's hard to hold in one hand for long amounts of time).

The benefit of an iPad or another tablet is that it feels much more like reading paper than sitting at a computer does. You can sit down at a couch or in a chair and lounge back. In addition, the iPad has a high-quality screen. You can also easily make annotations with good software. I personally use iAnnotate, but there are many options.

3) Many computer monitors, and especially laptop screens, are poor quality. If you want to do a lot of reading on the computer but do not want to try a tablet, consider getting a good-quality external monitor.

Most monitors are TN monitors, which have good response times, but have poor contrast ratios, poor viewing angles, and poor color accuracy, as well as limited refresh rates. IPS panels, in contrast, have much higher everything, but are more expensive. The vast majority of laptop displays, for example, are TN panels, as are the vast majority of computer monitors under $350 (at the 24" size). It may be worth looking at a higher-quality monitor if you believe that it will help your reading and you want to persist reading on the computer.

If you're trying to read on a television-as-a-monitor, don't. Television screens aren't good for text reading.

A benefit with getting a monitor is that larger monitors generally make people more productive, so even if you buy a monitor and still decide not to read from the screen, you're probably going to still benefit from it work-wise.

--

Basically, your mileage will vary. I've heard of people who have no problems with reading on screens (I'm one of them, though I did get some strain after a while and ended up switching to iPad for much of my reading). I've also heard of people who see flicker and get eye strain viewing certain monitors, with varying severity - some had severe pain after minutes of ANY monitor.

Personally, I feel that if you're still struggling to be productive after a week or two with new hardware (and, hardware is NOT cheap) then I'd consider just going back to paper. While the amount of paper that you have to archive and throw out can be sometimes rather depressing, it's actually a rather cheap alternative compared to purchasing a $500 tablet or monitor which has toxic waste, metal, and unrecyclable materials.

  • Sadly we have tiny offices -> I don't have the liberty to move things around as I would have liked to. Likewise I cannot demand a new screen when I already have two 24" monitors. Otherwise interesting points... – posdef Mar 7 '13 at 10:35
  • Oh and I should add, I have an iPad but I never came around reading papers on that, mostly because it's still not the same thing, bright LCD screen, heavier to hold in hand etc. At lest when I tried reading books on it I got tired VERY fast. I will make an attempt to read papers on it again, can report back when I have something more to report :) – posdef Mar 7 '13 at 10:36
  • I find that for reading books on the iPad it helps to turn the brightness quite far down and the font size up a bit. I also find the sepia mode quite comfortable. – Tara B Mar 7 '13 at 15:42
  • +1 for the Ipad (or some other tablet). I bought a $2 pointer and can highlight PDFs on my Ipad screen which is just like using a highlighter. Very convenient to have hundreds (even thousands) of PDFs handy that you can write notes, hightlight text, etc. using natural writing movement. The regular Ipad (or any big tablet) is a little heavy and I think next time I'll go for a Nexus 7 or similar. – che_kid Mar 8 '13 at 3:14
  • You might try to trade in the iPad for an iPad Mini or another 7" tablet. The lighter weight seems to make people who feel that the 10" iPad heavy happier. – Irwin Mar 8 '13 at 5:13
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Even I had similar problem, I asked few people I know & I came to know about this software called F.Lux. It provides a different lighting according to the time. And you can set it as per your convenience. I suggest you to give it a try :

http://stereopsis.com/flux/

It's a freeware, available for Windows/Mac & even for iOS (jailbroken) & Android.

My second suggestion is to look away from screen for ever few mins. Currently I use a timer to remind me (sometimes I even forget this lol) & I make sure to look away from screen for every 30-45 mins. For this I use Time Out app in my Mac. Similar app should be available for your OS too.

2

If you have a Nook/Kindle I've found it surprisingly easier to read on those devices. Kindle allows you to email files to that device and it appears in just a few min. There are glitches of course, but I find it a good middle ground.

  • Really? I heard Kindles were terrible for reading PDFs, but maybe they have improved. The ebook reader I had (Sony PRS-T1) was supposed to be one of the best for PDFs at the time I bought it, and it was still pretty terrible. I definitely wouldn't have tried to read a paper on it. – Tara B Mar 6 '13 at 21:16
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    @Tara B - reading PDFs in their native form is pretty terrible on a Kindle. You can send PDFs to Amazon.com (through your kindle email address) with "convert" in the subject, and you'll get a decent rendering of the text, but not any vector graphics. For text-heavy articles, it works great. – Chris Gregg Mar 7 '13 at 8:13
  • @ChrisGregg interesting info, thanks for sharing – posdef Mar 7 '13 at 10:38
  • @Chris- Agree. You have to send it through the conversion to get it to read clearly. – Lisa Mar 15 '13 at 13:29
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I have a similar issue with reading on screen. There doesn't seem to be a commercial A4-sized e-ink reader, which is what I'd ideally read digital copies on.

So, when I'm onlu skimming a paper, I'll do it on-screen.

But whenever I'm serious about digesting a paper, I've switched back to printing it out.

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I think one big reason I dislike reading on screens is the fact that I am basically shining a flashlight in my eyes for hours.

With software, this is less of a problem for two reasons: First off, the visual scheme is designed for a monitor (and not designed for paper but shown on a monitor like with books or articles). Second, the image is very dynamic, so paper isn't an alternative anyhow.

The first thing to try is to turn down the brightness of your monitor. This may seem to make it very dark at first, but backlight is different from contrast. I find that I easily get used to the lowest brightness setting on my monitors after an hour or so. If the wall or desk space behind your computer is dark, you may also want to put a weak desk lamp so that it shines behind your monitor and reduces the contrast of the wall vs. your screen.

If you do a lot of reading, you should consider rotating your monitor (most newer mounts support this) to have it oriented in portrait instead of landscape.

F.lux was already mentioned, and it can be very helpful, but I think it's more to do with effects of using a computer at late hours at home. At noon, a f.lux filtered screen will look about the same as without a filter anyway. If you are lucky enough to have a fancy monitor, you might even find sophisticated software to control contrast and brightness.

I have had a much better experience reading books on a Kindle. Because the screen is not backlighted, but instead gets illuminated by ambient lighting, it is much less irritating. Unfortunately the PDF support of Kindles isn't very good, you must scroll through each page as if it was a picture, and for papers which have small type, multiple columns and frequently refer to figures on other pages, the Kindle's interface will dirve you crazy. Kindle DX has a larger screen, about 8", though still not as big as a paper.

An alternative is, if you can find an HTML version of your article, to read that in your Kindle using the Web Browser.

Since you are stuck on a computer, I would recommend reading in a software such as Foxit Reader, which have very nice tools for highlighting and annotating. You could even invest in a drawing tablet such as Wacom to help you draw on figures and so on.

IMO this is a lost cause and you should print articles. You have read books and papers from actual paper for decades of your life, including in childhood. Your brain and your eyes are probably accustomed to it much better, and there might be psychological cues which help you focus (not to mention distraction on the computer like email, software popups and so on).

The paper consumption can be quite big, but honestly, how many "more important" uses for paper are there besides scientific research? In any case;

  • You can use low-grade, recycled paper
  • You can print on both sides, or reuse single-side paper as scratch paper
  • You can recycle your own papers after you read them
  • Only print papers that you actually want to read, instead of skim for 5 minutes (this should consume a very small amount of paper compared to your other daily activities)

Like you say, it's easy to end up with a huge mess. But that's a question of being organized. If you are a little proactive and develop a reasonable filing system (even a few manilla folders with labeled tabs can do wonders), you can keep the vast majority of the clutter under control very easily.

1

I write long policy documents and instead of printing them, I tend to proof-read them on the screen.

I use perhaps the most inexpensive way: the 'text to speech' program. This is inbuilt in the Mac computer. I aware there are better programs available but they are not free.

I basically highlight the text and press the key combination and the computer reads the text back to me. All I do is follow the document on the screen without too much effort. No eye strain etc.

This is quite relaxing as you can hear the words and in the case of proofreading you can gauge the quality of the pros etc.

It works with all types of documents (pdfs and even webpages).

  • I really doubt that the computer would be able to read a common article in bio-medical research seeing that it's barely English; with all those acronyms and jargon – posdef Mar 7 '13 at 10:44
  • Even with an ideal speech engine, I doubt it would be appropriate for papers in most research areas. One tends to read them more slowly than a newspaper or a novel: reading a sentence over and over until it makes sense, backtracking to a reference 3 pages before, etc. And that's not related to on-screen reading, the same problems arise with printed articles. – T. Verron Mar 7 '13 at 12:21
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Lisa has a good point but I'll just go into a little more depth with my experience (perhaps a little too much for a comment).

I use a Kindle DX (e-ink, big) and while it's not perfect it is so much better than a tablet. I find that reading on a tablet or monitor my eyes become quite tired quite quickly, but not with e-ink displays. The problem is that the Kindle (at least mine) does not zoom well into PDFs. However, the Nook (e-ink) did (sister has one) and even for my Kindle I can use Calibre (free) to convert PDFs to the native Kindle format. Calibre does work well for text-heavy articles (if there are not too many columns - the simpler the better) but if you have a lot of creative formatting, it's not quite so great.

The nice thing about the Kindle DX is that you can hold it on the side and you can read PDF articles well by jumping back and forth (read top 1/2 of first column in one view, then next page to view the bottom 1/2, then previous page to read the top 1/2 of the other column, etc.).

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In addition to the above suggestions, I find problems with text that stretches too far across the page. In that case, I do a copy and paste to a Word document, then put the text into columns.

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Get a large (22" or 24") display with 16:9 aspect ratio that has a mount that will allow you to put the display in portrait mode. You'll also need a video card that can support portrait mode display (most do this nowadays). This is ideal for reading PDF journal articles formatted for print because you can see a whole page at a time without wasting screen real estate or squinting to read tiny fonts.

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