Should academic books exist any more?

by Chris Bertram on January 28, 2018

Ingrid wrote a post about academics writing “trade” books. I’m not all that keen on such categorizations, but the idea seems to be that these are books that are and aim to be accessible to a wider, non-academic, public. In the past, of course, may scholarly works by academics have spoken to such wider publics, and some still do. To give some examples from off the top of my head E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Barrington Moore’s The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Bernard Williams’s Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, and John Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, were all works of scholarship and rigour that were sold to and were read by people other than specialists with academic jobs. In my own area, political philosophy, one could argue that taking seriously one’s democratic commitments even requires that arguments are shareable with an educated public (as I argued long ago … ironically behind an academic paywall).

More mysterious to me is the continued existence of purely “academic” books, written for specialists by specialists. Except for those written by a few megastars or academics with crossover into nearby disciplines, there are few purely academic volumes that are likely to sell enough copies to be commercially viable at the price they need to break even. So why do they continue to exist as bound paper entities (which is what I’m talking about) ? Two reasons, I guess. First, we continue to supply them and tenure and promotions committees continue to be impressed by them (so they are a professional necessity in many fields), and second the demand for them is heavily subsidized by buyers such as university libraries (presumably libraries are the only purchasers of many of the theses that publishers like Routledge recycle into books). None of this is necessary any more for intellectual exchange and argument. Exactly the same content (too rigourous or dull for the lay reader) could be supplied at the same length free of charge and online. Only prestige and subsidy is keeping purely academic books alive.

{ 41 comments }

1

Nichole Smith 01.28.18 at 7:23 pm

I don’t recall who, but several years ago I heard from someone who had written a(n academic) book and got a publisher to publish it. She wanted the price to be around $20 so people could buy it. The publisher set the price well over $100 and told her the only intended customers are libraries.

2

Matt 01.28.18 at 7:54 pm

I can still go to my alma mater’s main library and dig up old print issues of an on-campus publication that I made (minor) contributions to as an undergrad. I can’t find a trace of the electronic articles I contributed to the history department’s “web portal” around the same time (back when that was A Thing), because the site shut down before the Wayback Machine existed. Of course the Wayback Machine does exist now, and I’m generally happy with electronic documents, but it’s a consideration.

The last academic book I purchased was Photovoltaic Solar Energy: From Fundamentals to Applications. There’s just nothing like it being published in blogs. There is material very much like it published in the better sort of journal review articles, but buying its 13 chapters as 13 review articles from Wiley would be even more expensive than the $140 the book costs. (In truth I use sci-hub a lot, but sometimes there’s something that I really want to read and can’t read without paying.)

3

guthrie 01.28.18 at 8:14 pm

As a consumer of such books, whilst not being an actual academic myself, I have views.

Firstly, there definitely was a place for such books in the past before digitisation. It was probably an easier way of getting your thesis work out there for others to see. Now though your thesis can be digitised and available freely across the planet. So what is the point of an academic book that is your PhD thesis with some extra bits added? None that I can see.

Another purpose of such books is to collect together papers from various people on a specific topic. Again, this can be more easily served nowadays by electronic production of academic journal stuff. Of course you also need to destroy the profit making journal companies too.

So I am coming round to the idea that such a book is redundant. Also, in an age of print on demand, is £100 for a book actually a true reflection of the effort put into production? Obviously the academic never makes any money back on it, but you still need to pay for typesetting and suchlike.

Finally, I am seeing some decently low priced academic books in paperback, e.g. the Manchester medieval series. Some authors and publishers seem to be taking the idea of pricing books at a low price, seriously.

4

Raven Onthill 01.28.18 at 8:17 pm

They do also provide a physical archive and, really, the lifespan of electronic archives is uncertain.

5

george 01.28.18 at 8:31 pm

Prestige, subsidy, and, perhaps most powerfully, *aesthetics* are keeping purely academic books alive. I think justice probably requires making all academic monographs and edited volumes–and certainly all textbooks and readers–free online. But damn if I don’t appreciate the ability to leaf through a real book and make comments in the margins. Not infrequently, I buy books that are readily available online, just because I like having a bound copy. My concern for justice notwithstanding, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed if the norm became that academics publish online, and publishers stopped manufacturing hard copies of books.

6

Harry 01.28.18 at 8:58 pm

University libraries maintain the academic book market, Here’ how it works. My employer pays me to write books. I write the books, and give publishers the right to publish them. The publisher sells them to the library at a hefty cost. I get a (small) royalty, that my university doesn’t ask for.

Its a very strange business model. When it comes to patents, if I develop a patent on work time using work resources (quite an unlikely eventuality in my case) I have to do a deal with the university, which probably will involve me being able to make some money off it, and maybe even spin off a company. But I do have to do a deal. Royalties are just mine.

But journals are odder. I make nothing off of publishing journal articles, or for spending time refereeing; then my employer pays companies a fortune to get access to the fruits of my labour (for which my employer pays my salary)

I don’t make much in royalties, to be clear (over the course of the past 18 years maybe enough to pay for a couple of nice dinners a year). But, relevant to the textbook thread, the authors of successful textbooks in some disciplines make a lot.

7

christian h. 01.28.18 at 10:13 pm

I have spent many hours in university libraries picking out interesting-looking academic books to read in all kinds of fields. The amount of time I’d have to spend online to achieve the same would make this non-viable. In fact, it’d likely be much worse because of the way the structure of the modern web encourages popularity contests and concentration, while in a library all books are equal. In addition online stuff will eventually vanish, or become unreadable because of format changes, for a much smaller value of ‘eventually’ than paper books. So I think there’s very good reasons indeed to keep producing paper books, even those that have only few readers.

What is a whole different issue is that since universities are already – as Harry points out – paying for virtually every cost in the production and dissemination of academic monographs (the research going into them, the time spent writing, and through library purchases also production, distribution, and ensuring availability) it is absurd that the process results in serious restrictions on who can access them.

8

Phil 01.28.18 at 10:19 pm

the theses that publishers like Routledge recycle into books

I’d like to push back against this hasty formulation. There’s an Italian publisher I know of which does just this, and there may well be others. It’s a long way from what British university presses and “publishers like Routledge” do, though.

I pitched a book based on my thesis to five or six academic publishers before anyone could be persuaded that it might be worth doing. Once I was over that hurdle, I had to do a lot of work on it – to cut it down from thesis-length to book-length, to trim down digressive and academic-dues-paying passages, and to make it work as a book. Which, I think, I did. My thesis is readable – at worst it’s ploughable-through – but its best friend wouldn’t call it a book.

I was then told that it would only be going out as a hardback until such time as the first hardback edition sold out. True, the hardback edition numbered in the low three figures, but it was priced at a level where only academic libraries were realistically likely to buy it. The question wasn’t whether ‘people’ might want to read it, but whether the number of academic librarians in the English speaking world willing to take a punt on it was – well, whether it was in the low three figures or in the very low three figures.

As I understand it the book is now available online as part of a ‘scholarship’ package, reducing the likelihood of a paperback (and my dreams of a breakout crossover hit) basically to nil. For purely scholarly readers that may be the way forward, although whether it’s an improvement is another matter; I suspect there’s not much difference between the set of libraries capable of buying large numbers of academic hardbacks and the set of those capable of subscribing to multiple publishers’ online ‘scholarship’ packages. What definitely wouldn’t be an improvement, however, would be cutting out the middle-man by not producing those books at all, going directly to online distribution of people’s theses (which already happens, unevenly, in any case). A thesis is not a book, and Routledge, Sage, Hart et al are not thesis mills.

9

Helen 01.28.18 at 10:55 pm

This is very depressing! I have a deceased relative’s collection of academic books and journals (philosophy) – after several culls it still fills 6 document boxes. Hard to know what to do with these. Even an academic library would probably find many of them out of date or not useful.

10

Michael Cain 01.28.18 at 11:46 pm

Interestingly, the article can be downloaded from a Russian pirate source whose stated goal is to make academic publications available to the developing world, where western prices are unaffordable. I find myself torn on the ethics — as a member of the general public, and a retiree of modest means, in a developed country, my appetite for academic articles greatly exceeds my means, based on the list prices.

11

Gabriel 01.29.18 at 2:40 am

To reiterate: those physical books will be there, waiting to be read, in one hundred years, even assuming tragedies befall 80% of the printed copies, whereas one cannot be certain that electronic books will be accessible in twenty. Given that the disappearance of the early web is currently quite the hot topic, I’m surprised this post was made.

By all means augment physical books with electronic copies, but the thought of replacing them is a Very Bad Idea Indeed.

12

John Quiggin 01.29.18 at 2:46 am

@11 “those physical books will be there, waiting to be read, in one hundred years”.

Sadly, for a large number of academic books, that is close to the literal truth.

13

Gabriel 01.29.18 at 3:15 am

I buy books from academic presses to read for funsies. There are dozens of us out there. Literally dozens!

14

Donald A. Coffin 01.29.18 at 3:26 am

Interestingly, fair number of accessible-to-non-expert economic history books continue to e published, often with reasonable prices.

Robert Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective lists for $31 (and Amazon sells it for less).

Douglas Irwin’s Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy is $35 in hardcover. Other of his books on trade are also available for around $40.

Barry Eichengreen’s Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses-and Misuses-of History is $20 in paperback

Thomas Sargent & Francis Velde’s The Big Problem of Small Change is no longer available new, but is cheap used.

Peter Temin’s The Roman Market Economy is about $30.

I could go on. But for people interested in economic history, this might well be a golden age.

15

Rob Barrett 01.29.18 at 3:44 am

The press makes a big difference in pricing. My book (on medieval literature) came out from University of Notre Dame in paperback for $35. I’ve bought hardcovers from other university presses for $40-60. That’s a far cry from what the commercial presses (Routledge, Palgrave, etc.) are charging for literature books.

Also, in my experience, Phil is exactly right: a thesis is not the same thing as a book. There are different standards for the former; you can get a Ph. D. with work that I wouldn’t recommend to a press if I were an outside reader.

16

Warren Terra 01.29.18 at 4:34 am

@Matt, #2
If one is inclined to buy a very expensive academic-press book, it’s often wise to start by looking at Abebooks. Still unreasonably expensive, but in this case you could save $50 even on a new copy.

@Gabriel, #13
When you say you buy from academic presses, do you mean university presses or the sort of $150 per book “academic press” being discussed here? Surely no-one buys those with their own money, for fun?

17

rdb 01.29.18 at 7:03 am

See also booko.com.au, for price comparisons among the various online sellers, including for second hand books. Culls from academic libraries sold via AbeBooks or BetterWorldBooks can provide some books cheaply. … Whether many academic libraries will continue buying physical books or move to some license on ebook versions like web access to journals….

18

Neville Morley 01.29.18 at 7:42 am

Books smell musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, the gaining of knowledge should be tangible. It should be smelly.

19

bob mcmanus 01.29.18 at 8:35 am

Surely no-one buys those with their own money, for fun?

I was always surprised at what turned up in the Dallas used book stores, at firesale prices and excellent condition. I presume the model of academic books being sold only to university libraries is incomplete, universities rarely culling (I think?). Professors personal libraries eventually have to be disposed of, and gifting to uni libraries would imply dupes of obscurities. Professors are comped releases in their specialties? I would also guess that metro public libraries also pick up some specialty books, perhaps whimsically, eventually also culled.

Of course, my experience trolling used bookstores created an eclectic almost random collection. I consider that a good thing.

I might have had more to say about the commercialization, commodification, instrumentalization of scholarship and knowledge implied in the post and some comments. In no way do I consider the value of a book or scholarship determined by its popularity or marketability, and am disturbed by that implication.

20

bob mcmanus 01.29.18 at 8:44 am

The knowledge gained from a computer has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone.

Learning is hard. I think the problem we have with computer reading, well some of us, has more to do with our approaches and habits of consuming visual knowledge that anything intrinsic to the format. Read slowly, re-read, build databases of interconnections and intertextuality.

21

Matt 01.29.18 at 9:17 am

As Rob notes, the press matters. Princeton University Press regularly publishes hardbacks at prices that are not unreasonable, for example. Oxford, on the other hand, is almost as bad as presses like Routledge in publishing super-expensive hardbacks and waiting a really long time to publish a paperback.

That said, I regularly buy books that can only really be called “specialist” books, often in law, that are relevant to my work, but which would be only modestly relevant to practicing lawyers or activists. Still, without reading this sort of stuff, it’s almost impossible to have a well-established view on many issues. (Jane McAdam’s excellent and comprehensive _Complementary Protection in International Refugee Law_ is an example that’s recent for me.)

For me, e books are a poor substitute, though I see how this is less so for others. It’s very hard for me to “work” with a book unless I can mark it up, and I find this hard to do in a the same way with e books. Similarly, I often read while I’m walking around or doing odd bits of things, and I find this much harder to do with e books. So, that’s one reason why I hope “real” books will persist, while noting that it’s at least somewhat idiosyncratic. (Sadly, the university where I work is tending more and more to just buy e books, and also to refuse to allow research funds for faculty to be spent on books. It’s a good example of what happens when Benthamite bean counters run the university. It certainly makes research harder for me.)

22

casmilus 01.29.18 at 10:06 am

The ultimate graveyard of academic philosophy books is surely the Cinema Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, with its dimly -lit rows of crumbling shelves and sweet-smelling decay of angry debates that have been utterly forgotten. Here you find minor treatises released in the twilight years of traditions and which landed dead off the presses instantly: obscure British idealists of 1927, insignificant ordinary language fiends of 1961, conceptual analysts who just weren’t famous enough at any period. The strange hollow echo of earnest men (and a tiny number of women) in a closed room far, far away.

23

SusanC 01.29.18 at 10:09 am

Some faculties, at some universities, require paper (not electronic) publication as a condition of being counted for ourposesifpromotions etc. This leads to the paper book that is intended to be read by nobody – everyone is reading it online, and the theoretical existence of a paper copy somewhere is sufficient for promotions purposes. Hopefully, this is dyinging out as the more behind the times faculties wake up to the existence of the internet.

On the other hand, sometimes I like to rea books on paper rather than a screen.

And as other posters have noted, the archival issue – that paper copy will still be readable decade from now, but the electronic version won’t – is important. Then again, my own institution’s library is currently worrying about technical reports that weren’t printed on acid free paper, and urgently need to be scanned online before the paper rots.

24

SusanC 01.29.18 at 10:17 am

P.S. Royalties from people buying the book aren’t the point,, economically. A better question is, how much will my salary be increased by having this doorstop listed in my CV? On which point, most faculties consider journal publications much more important than books.

(And for journal articles, the right price is probably zero, since my revenue is being obtained from people who read the article, cite it, and hence bump up my citation count for promotion purposes, indirectly increasing my salary/probability of not being fired.)

25

Chris Bertram 01.29.18 at 10:27 am

* The OP did not deny that paper books are nice. Saying that books are nice is not, therefore, an objection.

* The OP did not apply its claims to books widely read outside their specialist field. Pointing out that some books are read by non-specialists (in non-negligible numbers) is not an objection.

* The OP asserted that tenure and promotions processes are (among the things) keeping them alive.

* The OP doubted that many printed books written by specialists exclusively for specialists can be produced as paper copies at a reasonable price without some kind of subsidy

26

John Quiggin 01.29.18 at 11:19 am

Crossing to Harry’s post on econ textbooks, http://crookedtimber.org/2018/01/27/economics-textbooks/, I remember reading an econometric study, showing that, in salary terms, a page in a leading econ journal had the same value as a book published by a top academic press. That was years ago, but I don’t think anything has changed.

Not surprisingly, economists tend not to write academic books. Trade books are more fun, and textbooks are more profitable, especially when students are forced to buy them.

27

bianca steele 01.29.18 at 2:56 pm

In a cynical mood, I sometimes think even trade books are read primarily these days by academics, and secondarily by journalists, and less and less (and less) by anyone else. Textbooks, and anthologies beyond the Modern Library range, seem so obviously not to have a broader market, though, that they might not fit the trade model.

28

MisterMr 01.29.18 at 3:08 pm

As a non academic, my understanding of the market for academic publications is this:

1) Academics cannot really judge other academics’s skills/knowledge in other areas of specialisation, even if the areas are quite close, because every academic has a very specialistic approach to something;

2) Therefore they use “publications” as a way to judge other academic’s skills and/or knowledge, on the assumption that if someone wrote a book on something, then presumably that someone knows a lot on that specific something;

3) But of course it’s perfectly possible to write a book full of BS, so academics also use “citations”, publications in peer reviewed journals, and publication by serious sounding publishers as a way to judge the value of other people’s publications, perhaps without reading the publications themselves.

4) Publishing a paper book implies some cost for the publisher, who is therefore betting on the academic, therefore paper book publishing is a form of “expensive signaling”, like a peacock tail; on the other hand online publishing is cheap and therefore cannot play the same role.

This is probably not the best possible system to value an academic’s skill/knowledge, so the problem at the root of “academic publishing” is in the way academic publications are used for promotions, not so much the price for the final users.

29

george 01.29.18 at 3:19 pm

CB,

Saying that books are nice is an objection to the OP’s claim that “only prestige and subsidy is keeping purely academic books alive.” Many academics are loathe to see specialist academic books die, because books are nice. This consideration probably wouldn’t be sufficient on its own, but I’d wager it plays a considerable role in helping prestige and subsidy keep specialist books alive for the foreseeable future. With that said, I didn’t intend my first comment (@5) to cut against the spirit of the OP.

30

bianca steele 01.29.18 at 3:45 pm

I also wonder if the $50 academic book (what used to be the $30 book, 15 years ago) functions essentially as a trade book, as opposed to the $130 academic book. Both those may well sell enough copies to non-academics, or others who don’t have easy access to well-equipped libraries, to earn something back for the publisher.

(Actually I see that Amazon is discounting some $50 books, for example one by Nussbaum I paid that much for, to close to $30.)

31

Whirrlaway 01.29.18 at 4:02 pm

My issue isn’t access to specialized books: even here in Podunk County the public library can fetch most anything for a small fee and a bit of a wait. What I can’t do is read current literature, because the local Community College can’t afford JSTOR.

32

Scott P. 01.29.18 at 7:36 pm

“On which point, most faculties consider journal publications much more important than books.”

Depends quite a bit on the field. Archaeological fieldwork is expected to be published in monograph form (with, increasingly, an added digital component), often in multiple volumes (the Corinth excavations are at 45 volumes and counting). It would be impossible to publish the same in journal form.

33

Jim Fett 01.29.18 at 8:20 pm

As an academic librarian in the humanities, I see the reason for the mess of academic books (and academic publishing in general) coming down almost entirely to hiring and tenure decisions made by academics. When you have hundreds of people applying for a job, not having a published book is probably a de facto disqualification. Likewise, having a published book with one of the right publishers is pretty much mandatory for tenure. Unless search and tenure committees change how they operate, I don’t think academic publishing will change.
Also, for many publishers, the number of copies need to break even is fairly small. Many books are published with subventions (direct subsidy). Some publishers require the author to edit their own book or find and pay an editor. Some science publishers require authors to also typeset their own book. You don’t have to sell too many copies at $100+ each when your editorial costs are nonexistent. Also, ebooks (with a marginal cost approaching zero) are almost always priced at 100% or more of the hardcover list price. For example, Chris’s Routledge philosophy guidebook to Rousseau and the social contract is priced from $120-180 depending on ebook provider and license; the hardcover is $120 and paperback $33.95.

34

Rob Chametzky 01.29.18 at 9:38 pm

There are, as some of the contributions indicate, two sorts of “academic” publishers: university presses and commercial publishers. In some areas of academic publishing, these two compete; in some, not so much. Pretty many years ago now, I worked as an acquisitions editor for a commercial publisher (Kluwer Academic Publishers) that has since been acquired by another one. KAP, as it was known, typically operated in areas (niches) that did not compete with university presses.

The business model was also something that some of the contributions suggest/allude to. The explicit goal was to sell to the several hundred research libraries in the world to cover costs and make the required profit; all other sales were just extra profit. Books therefore were priced high and were meant to have a technical, specialist content that was not available elsewhere but was deemed essential to its intended audience.

Such a model could exist largely because university presses, nonprofit businesses that used to (but no longer) receive subventions from their home institutions, did not publish such books precisely because they were so expensive and narrow. University presses could have published them and charged less than the commercial publishers, but the prices would still have been higher than the presses wanted to charge. This created the opening for the commercial publishers, which also could use the unpaid (by them) labor alluded to by Harry@6.

The OP raises legitimate questions about the point and need for (at least) such specialized, expensive academic publishing today. One problem with the model, not raised yet so far as I can tell, is that research libraries have increasingly constrained
budgets, so depending on (exploiting, some of us thought) them is increasingly risky.

The basic question wrt to such publishing is what, if any, value does the publisher add to the process, and could that be added with less cost. In those days of yore (some 20 years ago), it was claimed that the publisher added “vetting” (as some contributors have suggested, in noting the editorial processing) and “marketing/distribution”. So, the problem which these were said to help solve is enduring, and enlarging: “life is short, what to read and why?” Given vetting, you could have some hope that the material met some kind of professional/specialist standard, and with marketing/distribution, you could find out about the work and then find it. While distribution is no longer a serious, or any, issue, vetting and marketing remain.

Yet, as the OP asks, why should there be physical, paper books, even if some kind of publisher might be useful for vetting and marketing type functions? Two answers suggest themselves.

One is how much profit the publishers can extract from nonphysical, nonpaper books vs paper books–do they have a business model that permits them to make what they deem acceptable profits without physical, paper books. If not, they’ll continue to try to make and sell physical, paper books, with a possible outcome that there could be neither physical, paper books nor digital books if they cannot make acceptable profits from either. N.B.: referring here to specialized, niche academic publishing.

The other, as some contributors suggest, is the superiority of paper books as a medium for some purposes. Obviously, they take up room and are expensive to produce. They are also, as pointed out, better for taking notes in, and, as hasn’t been said, much better for teaching from, in part because they are better for taking notes in. If you’ve ever used a book with annotations in it for a class, you likely used sticky-notes or book marks or folded corners or some such. These allow you to easily see and find pages and passages you need. Ebooks are really really bad for such things, which you can tell even without having tried. Myself, I use a dedicated ebook reader, which is small and portable, has excellent typefaces and readability, and stores lots and lots and lots of books. Nonetheless, there’s just no way it works as well for teaching or note-taking–there is a lack of immediate visibility and usability. More generally, you can’t usefully flip through, or to a general area in, ebook pages regardless of the “page-turning” function. This is related to the difference between “searching” (as in an online database of books, say) and “browsing” (as in a library), alluded to by contributors. Books truly are an excellent technology for some purposes.

That said, a model mixing “print-on-demand” along with electronic books has been making its way, and could well be what ends up as a de facto standard.

–Rob Chametzky

35

SusanC 01.29.18 at 11:22 pm

“Only prestige and subsidy is keeping purely academic books alive.”

I only half agree. Publishing something on paper purely to meet the requirements of promotions committees certain does happen, but I think it’s on the way out as promotions committees wake up to the folly of their requirements.

I’m aware of cases where “paper books are nice” really was the reason for the paper edition. (i.e. prestige and subsidy aren’t the only factor). We’d already decided to do an online version, and the question is: should we do paper as well? And then we do the calculation, are there enough people willing to pay an extra $50US to read the thing on paper as opposed to a computer screen to cover the cost of a print run? And if the answer is yes, we can print it. (Bear in mind, the cost of proofreading the book for typos has already been committed to for the online edition, so you only care about the marginal cost of doing a paper edition as well).

36

Rob Barrett 01.30.18 at 12:02 am

Adding to what Scott says in #32: most humanities disciplines are book disciplines, not journal disciplines. That is to say, the book is the default standard for promotion and tenure, with journal articles as supporting evidence. Hijinks can ensue when administrators from outside of humanities departments apply journal discipline standards to book disciplines. (I speak from bitter experience.)

Also, regarding what MisterMr says in #28, while it is true that promotion and tenure committees at college and campus levels do not read the publications of promotion candidates, they do have multiple letters from outside readers in the relevant discipline evaluating the candidate’s scholarship. These letters are quite detailed, and a committee can get a good understanding by reading them. The members are not just counting the number of items on a CV.

37

Rob Barrett 01.30.18 at 12:06 am

One more point: when Jerome McGann retired from the University of Virginia, he had every page of his pioneering hypertext Rossetti Archive printed out for archival purposes. He could not trust that the digital work he and his collaborators had carried out would survive indefinitely online.

38

Warren Terra 01.30.18 at 12:28 am

@ Whirrlaway, #31

What I can’t do is read current literature, because the local Community College can’t afford JSTOR.

This isn’t a great solution, and it really depends on where you live, but typically if you step onto the campus of a research university and log your laptop or mobile device into their guest WiFi, that will give you access to their institutional subscriptions to journals and JSTOR.

39

John Holbo 01.30.18 at 8:29 am

This is the point at which I suggest, whimsically, a sequel to Coase’s Theory of the Firm. The book is a big collection of claims. Once upon a time, it was probably efficient to bundle them all between covers to save on transaction costs. But these days that’s generally only the case at essay length.

40

Colin 01.31.18 at 3:58 am

In mathematical publishing, monographs have a fairly well-defined niche, for material that is not fresh enough to go in a journal (or too long, although mathematics journals tend to be fairly generous when it comes to length), but not canonical enough to go in a textbook. Aside from Habilitation theses, I don’t think anyone is forced to write these in order to get promoted, but they still get published from time to time. I suspect it’s because some specialists in the area wish that such a book were on their shelves for them to leaf through for reference, realize it doesn’t exist yet, and then go away and write it themselves. In this situation, you can see the advantages for skimmability of having it as a bound book rather than a PDF.

What really doesn’t make sense to me is the production of so many dead-tree editions of journals. I suppose somebody could sit down with the latest volume of a journal and skim through it as if it were a newspaper, but it’s not a common activity (and even if it were, nobody would want to do this with the ‘lesser’ journals). Much more often, a researcher will be looking for a specific article, and then it makes more sense to find it in a search engine and print out only that article (or look at it on-screen). Purely electronic journals do exist, but for some reason they’re taking a long time to become the norm.

41

M Caswell 02.01.18 at 2:36 am

1/3 of all things I like in life only continue to exist because of prestige and subsidy.

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