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On World Book Day let’s ask what is the future of academic books in the natural sciences?

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Do scientists need monographs? Do books have a big impact on research in natural science? What are the shortcomings of the conventional book publishing model? What can be changed by open access? These are the questions for World Book Day 2015.

If I had to write a book to communicate what I was already thinking, I would never have the courage to begin. I only write a book because I don’t know exactly what to think about this thing that I so much want to think about, so that the book transforms me and transforms what I think. Each book transforms what I was thinking when I finished the previous book. I am an experimenter, not a theorist.

Michel Foucault – the most cited book author in the entire field of humanities of all time.

There is a consensus about the importance of monographs in the humanities, although even here research papers are slowly becoming the main way to communicate research. It is partly due to the fact that scholars in the humanities are usually evaluated by the same methods as scientists, methods that promote publishing (a lot of) papers. Writing a monograph is time consuming, which might be seen as fruitless in the age of the publish or perish regime – in a highly competitive and goal-orientated environment.

The impact of monographs

Surprisingly, according to the Google Scholar database, among the 10 top cited publications of all time there are 4 STM papers, 5 STM books and 1 book from the field of humanities (have a look here for more information). This shows that books have, or for a very long time used to have, a huge impact on natural sciences (at least equal to research papers). Scientists also write books, cite books, read them and use them for learning. Writing a book is not seen as a necessary step in the career development of STM researchers, although books are also important in this field. As Dr Katarzyna Michalczyk, Managing Editor in Life Sciences at De Gruyter Open told me “In life sciences books are written mostly by well established researchers, who are able to summarize and critically review the research output of some important field. This makes these books very credible and valuable sources of information and guarantee them high impact.”

Except for the publish or perish system, which requires scientists to maximize their publication scores, there is a second factor that reduces the popularity of writing monographs. It is the condition of the publishing market. Libraries do not have enough money to buy all the books they need, due to budget cuts and high prices of serials. Librarians tend to order the most demanded books only to save money in their modest budgets. This makes publishers (both commercial ones and non-profit) increase their selectivity and to only publish books by well known authors or dealing with fancy topics in order to reduce risk. Therefore, it is much harder to publish a monograph than it used to be, and compared to publishing several papers (have a look here for the excellent post on this topic by Janneke Adema).

What are we losing?

But it seems to me that reducing the role of the monograph (which occurs both in humanities and in science, but in STM it is much more advanced) is not an unimportant process. Steve Hill has already asked „Are the natural sciences missing out by not embracing the monograph like the humanities and social sciences?”. This question is even more important if we take into account the two factors I mentioned above, which influence academic publishing in both STM and humanities. Let me cite more less the same fragments of the HEFCE report about open access and monographs as Hill did:

[I]t (The book – WK) provides the length and space needed to allow a full examination of a topic, with the objective of presenting complex and rich ideas, arguments and insights supported by carefully contextualised analysis and evidence. (…) Writing a monograph allows the author to weave a complex and reflective narrative, tying together a body of research in a way that is not possible with journal articles or other shorter outputs.

And even more importantly:

Monographs should not be seen simply as the way in which research findings are communicated, because the act of constructing and writing a book is often a core way to shape the ideas, structure the argument, and work out the relationship between these and the evidence that has emerged from the research process

These paragraphs correspondent well with Michel Foucault’s quote, which started this text. Well, it seems to me that authoring a book might be an important exercise for every researcher, regardless of the field he or she is working in. And it would be pity to lose the culture of monograph writing.

The role of open access

“A big problem with STM monographs is also that they are very expensive, and hard to get.” – Michalczyk told me. “Researchers usually cannot afford to buy them on their own, and you cannot get them in every library, because of their limited circulations, thus open access has a large role to play in the case of STM monographs.”

There are several ways of bringing open access to monographs, even though OA books are still less popular than OA journals. There are crowd funding initiatives designed to open academic books like There is also Knowledge Unlatched, which organizes a consortium of libraries that directly pays publishers to make books open. But it seems to me that the so called “author-pays model” is becoming the main form of open access book publishing. It is offered by various publishers at this moment, including De Gruyter Open, which has already published 62 open access books in this way.

This model inverts the economy of conventional publishing. The institution behind the author pays money to get his or her book published by a professional publisher. The peer review and editorial process looks basically the same, so the book has to be scientifically sound. And this model seems to promote books that are important for the field (because academic institutions want to pay to publish these kind of books), over those that are written on fancy topics (which are more likely to be bought by librarians).

The open access model, based on book processing charges shares one disadvantage of the conventional book publishing market. It promotes well established authors more, since it is easier for them to find sufficient funding to cover APCs. But it does not seem to be a disadvantage in the case of STM, where writing a book is not necessary to get a first permanent position and is seen more as confirmation of a high position in the field. The problem is more important for humanities, where academic publishers and the scholarly community in general should support young book authors more. This is the reason why De Gruyter Open launched its Emerging Scholar Monograph Competition (which effects are limited to one or two authors per year of course, but which shows a possible direction).

Image: The Darwin’s book ‘The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’. Photo by MaropengSA, licensed under CC-BY 2.0 (edited).

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