June 4, 2008

Why do profs write those scholarly monographs?

Well, Bill Gasarch of Computational Complexity has a few ideas about why he's committed the sin of the expensive, highly specialized, narrowly focussed academic monograph which libraries feel they have to buy but only three people will ever read:

Why do we write high level monographs that very few people will buy? Should we?
  1. We are delusional. We think that a book will sell and make us real money. (I never thought this for my book.)
  2. We want to get a certain body of knowledge out there. (Yes for my book, though I later wrote a survey gems.pdf, gems.ps. that did a much better job. This is partially because AFTER co-writing the book (co-author Georgia Martin) I knew what I wanted to say.
  3. We want an excuse to learn a field. (Yes for my book, and even more so for a book I am working on on van der Warden stuff. See later in this post.)
  4. We write books to help us get promotions. In terms of time spend, papers are much better for Tenure. For Full Prof books may be okay. (This is not why I wrote my book, though I think it helped my Full Prof case.)
  5. We are intrigued by the mathematics that dicates that the book cost $80.00 for you to buy, and for each copy my co-author and I split $5.00.
  6. We like the fact that if there is a mistake it's hard to correct, and once a new result is discovered its hard to insert.

There's more in the post, and more in the comments as well. Of course, it raises a very interesting question: Is the printed scholarly monograph in the STM fields a declining phenomenon?

My answer? I certainly hope so. Certainly, there's little or no original research published in these books. At best, they generally function as very large review articles, which is a valuable function, of course. But it's a function which I think could be performed better by either wiki-like platforms, perhaps hosted by scholarly societies or more targeted, subject-based ebook collections like Morgan & Claypool's Synthesis. I would certainly prefer to spend my limited collections budget on items that provide the best, most current information in a searchable, remixable, dynamic and portable format.

My hoped-for future for edited collections is a topic for another post, of course, as are the futures of historical and popular works. Technical and reference books are still another area of interest where I think the publishing industry is a little further along in meeting the challenges of the web 2.0 age.


Ian said...

I think in general the system of scholarly communication needs a rethink. The Morgan & Claypool model is a step in the right direction for monographs providing they actually constantly update the content like they say they are going to.
I agree that wikis are probably the way to go in the future. Like you said in an earlier post no collections librarian wants to buy 2500 books on [insert programming language here] but if there was a subscription wiki that contained a wide range of information for every skill level I'm pretty sure that many computer science librarians would be pretty interested.

John Dupuis said...

Thanks, Ian, I agree completely. I'd love not to have to load myself down with tons of redundant and out of date content. On the other hand, I really hope that the vendors can find a business model that's sustainable for the kind of content I'd like.

FWIW, the whole "Free" idea may not scale to a lot of academic specialities.