US: Problems teaching science online

The internet provides convenience in dissemination of science information but there is substantial research documenting problems with replacing face-to-face teaching and traditional paper publishing. In this article, I describe 10 such problems.

Slower on-screen reading speed

Work by Charles Bigelow and colleagues show on-screen reading is 20-30% slower due to low resolution, with a 10-fold increase in resolution necessary to match paper. The best studies of reading speeds and legibility have been done by Gordon Legge, as described in his Psychophysics of Reading in Normal and Low Vision (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, 2007).

Legge's MNREAD test is widely used by other researchers. To combat low resolution 'jaggies', Microsoft has sponsored research on their ClearType screen technology used on LCD screens. Citations, and examples of overcoming some degradation, can be found here, here and here.

Reduced on-screen comprehension

Forrester Research discovered that comprehension likewise dropped 30% when students read work on-screen compared with paper.


Teachers who prepare lessons that include websites during the summer find a substantial number are no longer accessible when it comes time for students to complete lessons in the fall or spring. The rate of 'linkrot' appears to be holding or actually increasing.

A study published by R P Dellavalle et al ("Going, Going, Gone: Lost internet references" Science 302: 787-788, 31 Oct. 2003) examined three journals (Science, JAMA, NEJM) for citations to online journals and found that after 15 months, 10% of the references were gone - totally inaccessible. ESU biology student teachers find continuing higher levels since then in lesser ranked journals.

Online site accuracy

A study in the journal Pediatrics found a majority of websites brought up by search engines provided medically incorrect advice for parents caring for children with diarrhoea and dehydration, and some advice was fatally wrong. University-based websites were no more likely to be accurate than other sites.

University of Delaware researchers found that students could not detect a grossly inaccurate website even when using highly-rated 'techniques' for evaluating website accuracy. Once the students had ownership of the 'tree octopus' it was nearly impossible to correct the misconception.

Lack of accessible archives equivalent to ILL

There is no current or likely foreseeable archive repository for strictly online journals that have lost their base of support. Portico, a consortium that attempts to have institutions keep electronic archives, has no mechanism for providing ILL-equivalent service nor journal archiving once the journal and its parent are extinct.
High infrastructure costs

The internet is not free. The constant cost of upgrading in money for hardware and software as well as retraining time is enormous. To maintain high levels of production and formatting, as well as peer review and website availability, the cost is currently equivalent to the cost of print.

When it is recognised that end-users will print the article for use, it not only uses more resources but produces an inferior printed product since current high-quality online printers equivalent to publisher's printers cost $80,000 or more.

Real costs of maintaining online 'publications'

The turnover in computer hardware and software requires regular migration of an online journal to the new hardware medium or software format. This technology format turnover has been occurring in irregular seven-25 year increments; failure to migrate the whole back issue archive translates into inaccessibility, and is not provided for in current proposals for publications from extinct societies and publishers.

Peer review quality

While the top tier of journals have maintained peer review quality, there is evidence of erosion in proofreading and actual academic rigour for newer and minor online journals. In second tier online publications, the rate of typos has increased. Some online 'publications' in soft sciences (especially education) have eroded to unstructured casual ramblings more reminiscent of hallway discussions.

Threat to 'small sciences' outside biomedical research

The method of funding proposed for 'open source' journals and research loads the substantial costs of publication into the NSF-NIH grants that fund the initial biomedical research. Outside biomedical disciplines, most research is supported by individual researchers and/or their departments. To load the online publication costs into nearly non-existent grants in these fields would end the smaller non-biomedical journals.

Threat of the new 'online community'

When professionals must prepare and present in front of colleagues, they likewise face a hopefully high standard of efficient and immediate criticism. Replacement by an 'online community', despite the techie hype, allows a young professional to avoid the person-to-person confrontation and the need to undergo carefully prepared presentation, and professional communication can erode into little more than casual hallway chats. The drop in rigour and integrity is again most obvious in the 'soft sciences' and particularly in online education literature.

* John Richard Schrock is a professor in the department of biological sciences at Emporia State University in Kansas. This is an edited version of an address given by Professor Schrock at the Kansas Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting in March.