Ubiquitous access to the internet means there are more opportunities than ever for us to read. From Tweets to text messages, emails and news headlines, we are never far from snippets of content to absorb. The Information Age has led to a massive increase in the amount of content vying for our attention, which can leave us jumping from one article to another and retaining very little. We’re constantly on the look-out for new and exciting material to pique our interest.
Today, 99% of those aged 16-24 years own a smartphone, up from 29% in 20091. Not only that, but the average British person spends 2 hours and 34 minutes on their smartphone every day2. With so much of our attention taken up by an endless flow of short-form content, we’re reading more superficially than ever before. Shallow reading has become the norm: many of us now take in a lot of information superficially, and on the go, rather than carving out time for focused reading of longer-form content.
With technology now making an unprecedented impact on the way we read, we’re on the precipice of huge change – particularly when it comes to how information is absorbed and applied both in academia and industry. As members of Generation Z — born between the mid 1990s and 2010 at a time of peak technological innovation — start to graduate and join the workforce, how can we make sure we’re harnessing the right technology to boost productivity?
Information overload and academic burnout
First, a little maths: the average adult reads around 250 words per minute. That means even a modest academic article of 5,000 words would take around 20 minutes to read — and that’s before you factor in time for note taking.
With students – from undergrads to Phd – facing an overwhelming volume of weekly reading, it’s a sad fact that many feel the only way forward is to drop out of their studies: 6% of all students drop out of university in the UK3, while a worrying study from the NatWest Student Living Index 2019 reported that 45% of students feel stressed by their course4.
It’s no wonder, then, that in a bid to absorb the maximum amount of information in as short a time as possible, academics have had to adapt their reading methods. But how effective are they?
Speed reading is one popular practice that enables students and academics to absorb a large amount of content in a short space of time. There’s even software, such as Iris Reading and 7 Speed Reading, that’s designed to help people to read up to 10,000 words a minute, by training them to recognise phrases on a page rather than individual words. It sounds too good to be true, but it also has its limitations: many speed readers find themselves facing a trade-off between speed and comprehension.
Skim reading articles and screening abstracts are other popular approaches students and academics use to decide how useful content is. However, these techniques do still require a lot of reading, making it easy to quickly forget what you’ve read or feel overwhelmed by the volume of information out there.
Many journal databases now give students the chance to listen to full-length papers in an audio format. The advantages of this might be alluring to some, but when you consider that listening is slower than reading, it’s probably not the most efficient way to study.
From summary generators to visual abstracts: the future of reading academic papers
The readiness of information and influx of content means it’s no longer sustainable for students to read and comprehend mountains of papers. Thankfully, the rise of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) is making it easier for both students and researchers to digest academic articles, as well as become more discerning about the content they choose to read.
Fiction and non-fiction audiobooks have also seen huge growth in recent years, but how does this format hold up for study purposes? A recently published paper: Drawbacks of Audiobooks for Learning and Cognition by Milena Tsvetkova concludes that “auditory reception has minimal effect in learning, i.e. in the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills.” That said, the popularity of audio for learning about new subjects doesn’t look like it’s about to wane anytime soon and perhaps combined with reading and other more active ways of digesting information it still has a role in learning.
Not since the invention of the internet has the world of academia faced a more revolutionary form of technology to shake up the way we read and digest information. If you’re a student or researcher, you can listen to telegram audiobooks to gain knowledge anytime. This technology is likely to become an important part of your reading practices in the not-too-distant future.
Online summarizing tools
AI driven online text summarizers is one type of emerging technology gaining traction with time-pressured students and researchers. Tools such as Scholarcy, Paper Digest and Semantic Scholar quickly pull the salient points from reports, articles and book chapters, helping readers filter out the most useful content and determine, at a glance, the value of this to their work. Such technologies are able to help students and researchers significantly reduce the time spent appraising a paper. Some can also extract tables, images and references from academic texts, helping the reader analyse a piece of research more quickly.
An increasing number of journal websites are using visual abstracts to present a summary of an article’s key findings. While these aren’t designed to replace reading the full article, visual abstracts (or infographics, as they’re also called) give readers a quick overview of the content and its significant points, helping them quickly decide whether it’s worth a deeper read.
So, just how effective are these technologies? The Annals of Surgery, a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal of surgical science and practice, has stated that articles with a visual abstract get five times more exposure than those with no visual abstract5, indicating a keen appetite for more.
“We see younger researchers using video abstracts to scan literature quickly,”6 explains Cameron Macdonald, Executive Director of the Ottawa-based publisher Canadian Science Publishing, as he talks about the appeal of video in assessing large volumes of content.
Similar to visual abstracts, video abstracts distill the most pertinent points of a journal or article into a quick, easy-to-understand format. These short videos of 5 minutes or less are designed to sit alongside research articles, and usually involve the writer of the content promoting the study’s highlights and main conclusions. Not only do these audio descriptions aid the reduction of screen and reading fatigue, they also help students and researchers quickly ascertain whether the research is worthy of a closer read.