Publish or Plug In? Debating Academic Books and Digital Dynamics

In Feature Articles by Mark Piesing

‘I completely disagree with the phrase “publish or perish,” says one voice in a discussion of academic publishing. So what does the digital disruption disrupt in this sector?

Image – iStockphoto: Bizoo-N

‘Ebooks have been the life insurance of the book,’ says Springer Nature’s Niels Peter Thomas. ‘If we were only to publish print books, we would probably be out of business.’ And so it is that a debate on formats in academic publishing shows broad opinion and interesting concepts of what digital means in the academic future.—Porter Anderson

By Mark Piesing | @MarkPiesing

‘Caught Between Opposing Forces’
In the publish-or-perish academic world, books that can take years to write may be in danger of losing more ground to journal articles, which can be turned around comparatively quickly by citation-hungry researchers.

Publishing Perspectives heard several angles of the issue discussed in Shaping the Story: How New Technologies are Bringing About the Next Chapter in Academic Book Publishing, one of Orna O’Brien’s Insight Seminars series at at London Book Fair.

Here are comments from several professionals who spoke from the frontlines of the debate around challenges to customary ideas of books as a priority—and how new technology may impact choices ahead. We begin with the session’s chair, Kathy Christian.

Kathy Christian

Kathy Christian

Kathy Christian, chief operating officer at Altmetric

“For about fifteen years we’ve heard that the print book was about to become obsolete. That didn’t quite happen, but there are still a lot of questions about the future of print books.

“To get tenure as an academic you still have to publish books, and many commissioning editors are incentivized to publish more titles each year. Governments continue to evaluate academics by the books they publish, as well as journals” in which they write.

“Library cuts are happening on a regular basis, so that fewer books are being purchased. Academic books cost around $25,000 to publish, so are pretty pricey, which publishers want to scale back on.

“So caught between opposing forces like these, which way will the future of the book tip?”

John Harrison

John Harrison

John Harrison, reader in human geography, Loughborough University

“I completely disagree with the phrase ‘publish or perish,’ because you can still publish but perish as an academic. The big issue for me is how as a researcher you make your research visible—because it’s only if people engage with it, read it, use it, that your research has a wider relevance and a bigger impact. It’s about originality, significance and rigor–and what’s interesting is that this is what publishers are looking for.

“I think this is also increasingly what authors are looking for from publishers. When I’m looking to choose a publisher, I’m thinking about originality:

  • Originality: What a publisher will do with my book that’s different from the others to help my research reach its audience;
  • Significance: You want your book to be alongside other leading books; and
  • Rigor: The publication, production and marketing processes.

“You want people to see your book–and metrics are really good at telling you how visible your book is. The next thing is that you really want people to read it, and there are lots of metrics to help you measure downloads and sales.The final bit is usage: you want people to use your work.

“My concern is that the number of people who look at your work, read it, and use it is an ever-decreasing number. What we don’t know as authors is why do people look, not read, and why do those people who read, not use it?

“Metrics have been useful up to now, but for metrics 2.0, we need to get more access to the data. Just how long did someone look at my chapter?”

Lucy Ayre

Lucy Ayre

Lucy Ayre, repository and open access librarian, University of Derby

“My entire budget was cut by 56 percent [affecting ability to] afford the subscriptions to journals and other e-resources. An average book price of £56 [US$70.50] is really difficult for me when half my budget is going to journal articles.

“Articles look better on the metrics because they’re quicker to read and quicker to share–and as a result, it’s much quicker to accumulate these metrics than a book.

“However, academic books are still the foundation for most undergraduate and postgraduate teaching courses at universities. They are trusted and established forms of research. From surveying our students–and with the exception of online students–students prefer books. Unfortunately, we know that the students want the book content but we can’t afford to give it to them. We don’t get the impression from the data of ebook usage that our students are reading the books, they’re more checking in and out. It’s hard to justify the cost of ebooks as a result.

“We can tell books are really in demand from data from our online reading lists. Students want versatility in how they read the content.

“We’re losing lots of metrics because people are buying books in print. In humanities, it can take a long to time for citations to build up, but by incorporating reading list data you’ll be able to see the longevity of a book on core reading lists.”

Niels Peter Thomas

Niels Peter Thomas

Niels Peter Thomas, chief book strategist, Springer Nature

“For the last 10 years, ebooks have been the best possible copy of the real printed book.

“Starting now, it will be opposite way ’round. Print copies will do whatever they can to copy the original book published online first. So it will change how we look at and publish books–and how our authors do. We’re about to enter the next stage of digital transformation.

“I really think that technology is reviving the academic book. Ebooks have been the life insurance of the book. If we were only to publish print books, we would probably be out of business. The data we can get on the usage of books will help secure their status.

“It’s not only the book that will change, but also the distribution model and the way we feed back data to the author. It’s happening in medical and engineering publishing already, with augmented reality and multimedia content embedded into the books.

“The real opportunity for change is if we can combine book reading with social media. We want to bring the author and readers together in a discussion space to gain data from observing the researchers, how they communicate with each other.

“There will be more high-frequency changes of books, too. You used to have to wait two or three years minimum for a second edition–and only a few books would make it to the second edition. Later this year, we’re rolling out the technology to enable books to be updated overnight.”

About the Author

Mark Piesing

Mark Piesing is a freelance journalist (and teacher) based in Oxford, UK now writing mainly about technology, culture and the intersection between the two for some of the biggest brands in the UK media such as The Economist,, and The Guardian. He also contributes to Warwick Business School's Core magazine. WBS is one of the top business schools in the UK.