Perishing and publishing

There’s a good piece in the Guardian on a growing business model in academic book publishing. The model basically involved commissioning lots of different books, selling low numbers (300) mainly to university libraries at high prices (e.g. £100). I’d had my suspicions that it was happening and this rings true to me. Given the ‘publish or perish’ culture in universities, it must be pretty tempting for academics who receive offers to publish with little quality control. It seems that a hierarchy of publisher is emerging. I’ve started to hear colleagues and peers talk about different qualities of publisher when discussing books. The anonymous academic puts it in context very well.

These may sound like stories of concern to academics alone. But the problem is this: much of the time that goes into writing these books is made possible through taxpayers’ money. And who buys these books? Well, university libraries – and they, too, are paid for by taxpayers. Meanwhile, the books are not available for taxpayers to read – unless they have a university library card.

So what are the alternatives? We could stop publishing these books altogether – which may be advisable in a time of hysterical mass publication. Or we publish only with decent publishers, who believe that books are meant to be read and not simply profited from. And if it’s only a matter of making research available, then of course there’s open source publishing, which most academics are aware of by now.

So why don’t academics simply stay away from the greedy publishers? The only answer I can think of is vanity.

Vanity may be a bit harsh given the pressures to publish. In this digitised era (Yuk – but it’s true!) it’s really debateable whether books are the best way to create academic learning materials. One of the main disadvantages of books is that the content can become out-of-date quite quickly. Updates occur sporadically if at all. I can update my lecture notes etc. continuously (well, maybe continually. I don’t do it as much as I should) and make them available at minimal cost to students. If universities chose to incentivise (in particular, make it a really important criterion for promotion for every level) improvements in the quality of learning material produced by their staff, I would guarantee a colossal improvement in the quality of these materials.

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