Kindle for Academics

Currently, no ebook reader appears to completely solve my needs. Some come close in some areas, while still making things unnecessarily complicated in the final steps of the solution.

Ulysses notes

Some ebook readers, such as the Kobo, quickly fail to solve my needs. The standalone Kobo ereader provides no means for text entry, having only a D-pad toggle. My first need for an ereader is to highlight and take notes on the text.

While there appears to be some support for these annotation features on the iPad Kobo app, they don’t appear to sync across the cloud. Their desktop app, for example, provides no annotation features at all.

The Amazon Kindle has more strict Digital Rights Management (DRM), which restricts some forms of access to the text, such as in 2009 when Amazon deleted George Orwell novels, including 1984, from all Kindle devices. This is a level of control I’m uncomfortable with a large corporation to have. The opportunities for abuse are evident, as Amazon has shown in January of 2010, by pulling all books published by subsidiaries of Macmillan, including SF publisher Tor, from the Amazon store. This was done as part of a power play on digital rights sales, such as Kindle books, but it involved pulling all print editions as well.

Amazon’s Kindle has a multi-platform triple-threat. In addition to their portable ereader devices, they provide a desktop reading solution, as well as other mobile devices such as the Apple iPad. While Kindle is available for BlackBerry, like many other things Amazon has to offer, this isn’t available in Canada.

While I haven’t used the Kindle ereader hardware, I have used both their desktop reader, and the iPad version. Both of these offer highlighting and text annotations, which sync wirelessly with each other. They also maintain your reading position between the two applications. This is unfortunately only the first part of the solution.

The important part is where Amazon fails. Once you have selected portions of the text, and made annotations on the go, students need to access this text. Amazon sometimes allows these “clippings” — as they refer to the selections — to be exported via their web interface. Note the qualifying word of sometimes. Each book in their system apparently has some undefined, undocumented limit as to how much of the text can be exported in this manner. Some books have a hard limit of no exported text. While I can understand the publisher’s desire to stop people from copying the book, this is not helpful for students in the least.

Sadly, copyright tends to actually be more restrictive for academics in Canada. Concordia University has a helpful comparison between fair dealing (in Canada) versus fair use (in the United States). The restrictions in clipping length may be analogous to the lack of definition of the term “substantial” in the Copyright Act (s.3). As this term is undefined in the Act, publishers may decide on a more restrictive definition than commonly accepted.

The web interface that Amazon uses is also difficult to use. In an ideal world, I would be able to select my highlighted sections from the desktop app, and have them copied in proper citation format, including an entry for my works cited list.

Another problem when dealing with the Kindle is directly related to citations. Amazon has standardized on a “location” number to reference text in a book, rather than the term “page”. The thought on their part is that at different zoom levels, pagination will change, making page references unstable.

Amazon has lately started to remedy this problem, by including page numbers which presumably link back to a print edition of a book. While I see this change on the iPad, my desktop application only provides Location information. In either case, I still have to manually type the quoted text into my essay. How is this more convenient than just using a print book again?

What’s the solution? It’s been tempting to run screenshots through OCR software, except that I’d still have to proofread the text for corrections. I guess what really bothers me is that this is something that would likely be easier than what Amazon is doing now, and not just for students.

Author: Nick Matthews

A software developer and English major. Full time geek.

2 thoughts on “Kindle for Academics”

  1. On the 1984 issue – read the article you linked:

    ‘An Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, said in an e-mail message that the books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them, using a self-service function. “When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers,” he said.’

    I agree that they should not have deleted the books from customers’ Kindles and I’m sure that won’t happen again after this case, but Amazon didn’t just randomly delete a book from customer’s Kindles – someone had illegally uploaded a copy of 1984 and was making money off of the sales of it.

    On the clippings issue – check out http://kindle.amazon.com. You can see all of your highlights and notes there.

    On page numbers – the 3.1 update for Kindle devices that includes page numbers was released quite recently. There are teams developing for each platform – Android, iPhone, iPad, Mac, Windows, etc. It takes time for each time to respond to the new features and release a new version. I would just be patient and assume that it will be ported to your desktop version eventually.

    Also, the page numbers are not necessarily available for each book yet as this also requires cooperation with publishers.

    P.S. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m the Tara who interned with your team in spring 2007 and now I work on the Kindle at Amazon 🙂

    1. Thanks Tara. I knew they had a reason of some sort, and that this wasn’t just a wholly out of the blue attempt. I think it speaks more to an overall process failure, which I’m sure that Amazon has since addressed. The point is that customers had bought books in goof faith, had taken notes in the books (as 1984 is commonly assigned reading in high school) and then Amazon deleted the books and their notes from their Kindles.
      After the uproar that happened over this incident, I’m sure that Amazon has revised their policies about this, and I don’t expect it to happen, but the point that I’m trying to make is that in any conflict, Amazon will first back any threats to its bottom line and business plan, followed by publisher rights. In any conflict, the customer doesn’t seem to be getting much support.

      Thanks for the link to the web clippings. Unfortunately, while the notes are available, there are limits as to the number of highlights available on the site. My whole point is that these limits hurt the Kindle’s acceptance as an academic tool. At the very least, these limits should be displayed on the Kindle store page for the book.

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