Undergraduate Science Students are Uncertain of How to Find Facts in E-books Compared to Print Books

Christina E. Carter


Objective – To observe and compare the strategies that undergraduate science students use to perform information retrieval tasks in e-books and in print books.

Design – Qualitative analysis, employing a “prompted think-aloud” methodology and thematic analysis.

Setting – Taylor Library (serving the Faculty of Science), University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada.

Subjects – Twenty undergraduate science students (11 females, 9 males) who had completed at least two years of study in Faculty of Science programs at the University of Western Ontario.

Methods – Participants for the study were recruited through informational posters in Taylor Library, science departments, and in undergraduate science classes. Participants were assigned fact-finding tasks in e-book and print versions of eight health, computer science, and engineering textbooks and handbooks available in the Taylor Library. Book titles and tasks are included in a table in the study. Each student completed four tasks using e-books and four tasks using print books. Half of the participants performed tasks in print books first, and half began with tasks in e-books. Print books were “pre-selected” for each participant. The e-books were all from the same platform: Electronic Book Library. Participants were provided with a laptop computer to access the e-book versions, and a list of questions or facts to locate within each book. Following the methodology of Cotton & Gresty (2006), one researcher prompted students to verbalize actions while performing assigned tasks. A second researcher captured audio and video of the laptop screen as students individually conducted their e-book searches. A third researcher took notes on each session. An exit survey was given to each participant, asking about previous use, knowledge, and attitudes towards e-books. Thematic analysis was then used to examine the collected data.

Main Results – Researchers identified four major themes from the data with regard to use of print versus e-books: linear/non-linear strategies; tangible/intangible aspects of books; met/unmet expectations; and transferable/non-transferable behaviours. Researchers found that participants tended to search print books in a linear fashion, whereas they approached e-books non-linearly. Physicality and familiarity with print books helped participants more readily find answers, compared to e-books, where students tried less successfully to mimic techniques used in print books to locate requested information. Participants used indexes in print books, versus e-books where they did not quickly identify the e-books as having them. The students expected that the e-books would behave as other web-based/online sources or search engines would (such as Google books), and commented that they did not. Transferable actions between print and e-books included developing and using keywords for searching.

Conclusion – The authors of this study found that student participants did not know how to navigate the e-books presented to them compared with their print counterparts. There was a lack of awareness on the part of participants about e-books in general: the students were unaware that e-books were available through the library catalogue; they did not know that e-books have indexes as print books do; and did not know the differences among platforms offered by the library. All of these facts point to the importance of user education. The authors note the importance of testing of e-book platforms by students, faculty, and librarians prior to committing to purchase particular platforms. The authors note that more research is needed on user interaction with e-books, how e-books are used to assimilate information, and how groups other than undergraduates search e-books.


academic libraries; college students; electronic books; print books; use studies; information retrieval; qualitative research; think-aloud protocol; thematic analysis

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18438/B8HK89

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