Are books now obsolete?

Well no, I guess they’re not. But I’ve been thinking about whether some types of book publishing are even worthwhile. So, what’s my complaint? Well, in many cases I don’t see why either publishers or paper books are of any use. I think researchers can easily self-publish PDFs that are open access, free and may even have higher production values than many books I’ve seen recently.

Multi-author edited books can be great. They can take a long time to get to print though, are not picked up by Google searches and are usually VERY expensive. Is this even worthwhile? So, you have a chapter in an edited volume. It probably took a while but its published. The book costs maybe 100 pounds and isn’t publicized heavily by the publisher (well they aren’t going to sell many whatever they do). It’s bought by a few people in the area and a number of university libraries, then its out of date and forgotten. Sad.

Alternatively, you write up your chapter as before, save it as PDF then upload it to a public repository where anyone can download it for free. Total time involved in publishing- minutes. Readership will be much higher because its a free PDF, fully visible to Google, of course people are going to download it!

But what about peer review?”. Well frankly books are not often peer reviewed to the same standards as journal articles. Research in peer-reviewed journals is different to that in books. In self-publishing though you could always ask a colleague to send it out for anonymous review. Books should have a statement describing their peer review process (if any) but they don’t. If you’re self-publishing you should do this.
What about how nice it is to have a beautiful book sitting on my shelves, or in the library?”. OK I sympathize. Books do look nice, and they keep people making bookshelves in employment. But once you have your work finished you can upload it to an online publisher and get any number of “proper books” sent to you, much much cheaper than typical publishing. If anyone else needs a hard copy to take on holiday they can just download your published book, upload to the online publisher and get a single (cheap) copy mailed to them. Have a look at Lulu or Blurb. Upload a PDF to Lulu and get a single 200 page book for about £20 (US$35). Sell your book in their online bookstore if you want.

But how could I cite it?”. If you upload a PDF to say Nature Precedings you will get a permanent doi number. Lulu offers an ISBN too.

So I’ve been burned in the past. It took 5 years after our chapter was reviewed and accepted (“in press”) to it appearing in print. Exceptionally long? Yes. It took so long because of editorial ineptitude along with publisher sloth, change of publisher, more sloth. But what if it was just 9 months, would that 9 month dead time be OK? No it wouldn’t, you can self-publish in a few minutes. Why delay things for 9 months? We made the naive mistake of putting new stuff into the chapter, but after so many years in press it wasn’t new or even a good review of the literature any more. Gómez A, Lunt DH (2007) Refugia within refugia: patterns of phylogeographic concordance in the Iberian Peninsula. In: Phylogeography of Southern European Refugia (eds. Weiss S, Ferrand N). Springer. It sells for £92 (US$182) by the way, save your money.

I like books, no really I do. But I’m not sure many publishers serve research scientists as well as we want. Why should they, they’re companies with shareholders! There are parallels both to world of open-access publishing here and to bands who avoid signing to a record label and just load their music onto iTunes. I will never publish a chapter in an edited book again. The revolution is coming….

One Comment Add yours

  1. Mike Keesey says:

    Excellent post! I agree completely (including the part about still having a fondness for books).And one other nice thing about electronic publication: it saves trees.


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