Are scientific books on their way out?

The question in the title was put to me by a friend recently. Not too long ago, he wrote a chapter for an edited volume on a topic of much current interest in community ecology. The chapter, and the book as a whole, had a lot of new ideas–it wasn’t just people repackaging stuff they’d said before. But the book isn’t much cited, and the new ideas in it probably would’ve been more cited if they’d been published as standalone papers.

I wasn’t really sure how to answer my friend’s question. I suspect it’s always been the case that chapters in edited volumes are less cited on average than the equivalent papers would have been. And much as with papers, I’m sure most scientific books have been little-read and had little influence, while a small minority have been widely-read and highly influential. But not working in the publishing industry, and not being inclined to do a lot of research, I have no idea if books are being purchased and cited less often than used to be the case. Similarly, there definitely are still people who respect and place high value on the scholarly effort that goes into writing or editing a scientific book, effort which is quite different in amount and kind from the effort that goes into writing papers. But I have no idea if people who feel that way are less common than they used to be.

I guess I’ve always thought that the choice between writing a scientific book, or contributing a chapter to an edited volume, isn’t a matter of deciding whether books or papers garner more citations. Books vs. papers is an apples to oranges comparison, I think, especially for single-authored books. I think you write a scientific book because you have a body of ideas that just can’t be fully developed and well-presented in a paper or series of papers. That was my motivation the one time I wrote a book proposal. Steve Hubbell’s idea to apply neutral theory to ecology is another (and better!) example. He first proposed the basic idea in a paper in Coral Reefs in 1997. Similar or closely-related ideas were proposed by others in papers published years earlier (e.g., by Hal Caswell) or shortly thereafter (by Graham Bell). But the idea only really took off when Hubbell wrote an entire book about it.

Authors do vary in their views about what ideas benefit from being put in book form. Many single-authored scientific books pull together an author’s previously-published work. Such books don’t present new results (or at least not many), so the “added value” comes from the way the material is organized and explicitly linked together. How much value one sees in this is very much a matter of taste, I think. For instance, students who are unfamiliar with the author’s papers might find such books very valuable, while others who’ve already read the author’s papers might find such books less valuable. For edited volumes, there’s always the challenge of imposing some integration and organization, so as to ensure that the book is more than just a bunch of papers that might as well have been published separately (or as part of a journal special feature or special issue). But I have no idea if books that pull together an author’s previous work, or edited volumes, generally are seen as having less “added value” than used to be the case.

One factor that could be working against books these days (especially edited volumes on topics of current interest) is timeliness. It is, or can be, quicker to publish papers than it used to be, and I think people care more about speed of publication than they used to. Which could be causing authors and readers to steer away from producing or purchasing edited volumes.

I’ve been wondering about these issues because I have a sabbatical coming up in a couple of years and I’m thinking about how best to spend it. I don’t want to spend it just writing papers. For me, sabbaticals are a unique opportunity to do different scholarship than one can easily do when not on sabbatical (just my personal view about my own sabbatical, I’m not criticizing anyone who chooses to spend their sabbatical just writing papers). One possibility is to write a book, either on the same topic that I proposed in that old book proposal (which I could take to other publishers), or on some other topic. Given my own personality and circumstances, if I’m ever going to write a book, it’s only going to happen while I’m on sabbatical. But I’m having trouble deciding if I should do it. Lots of considerations here, of course, including what I might do instead. But among the considerations are “Do scientists still read books these days, and if so, which scientists, how many, and what sort of books?” Because while I don’t think you write a book in order to reach more people than you could with papers, I wouldn’t go to the trouble of writing a book unless I thought it would be read. That is, if I had ideas that I thought would be best presented in book form, but I didn’t think anybody would buy that book, I’d either just keep those ideas to myself, or else publish them in a less-suitable way.

So what do you think? Do scientific books still have their place? I’d be particularly curious to hear from folks who’ve been involved in workshops, working groups, symposia, or small conferences lately–the sorts of events that tend to lead to edited volumes. Is the published “product” from your event going to be an edited book, or something else, like a journal special feature? Was there any discussion of the pluses and minuses of doing an edited volume? I’d also be interested to hear from folks like me who’ve thought about writing a sole-authored book. Why did you decide to write a book? And did you worry at all that people might be less interested in reading scientific books than they used to be?

p.s. In case it wasn’t clear, I’m thinking here of books aimed at a professional audience. Popular books is a whole ‘nother topic, I think, and one about which I know precisely zip.

p.p.s. It was once suggested to me that I ought to write a book of advice to students on “how to do ecology”. There is of course already one book on that exact topic. So if I was going to write a book on that, I’d want to make sure I had something quite different to say. But even if I had something quite different to say, I’m not sure I’d say it in book form. I think this blog is a good vehicle for offering advice to students. I don’t know that my advice would reach more students, different students, or be more effective (either in the short or long term) if I presented it in book form rather than blog form.

23 thoughts on “Are scientific books on their way out?

  1. I think you will find that chapters in books get far more citations on average than papers in journals. As book publisher of some 20 years or so, I will add no more, as my comments may be seen as rather biased.

    • Thank you for your comments Ward. To clarify, are you a publisher of books in the humanities and social sciences, or the sciences? As I tried to make clear in my post, I’m referring specifically to scientific books, being a scientist myself. I am aware that the humanities work quite differently, with books being a more valued and highly-cited mode of scholarly communication, relative to papers.

    • I think it can vary whether book chapters get more citations than a paper. In the current world it is harder to cite and track book chapters (e.g. ISI doesn’t do book chapters as well) which may make chapters appear less influential than they are. But think of the chapters in the 1980s synthesis books on community ecology (e.g. Diamond and Case). Those papers definitely got cited heavily and in part it was a sum is greater than the parts citation rate (chapters got cited more because they were next to other chapters that got cited). Also books that slip over the line into becoming texts, even graduate texts, get very heavily cited. Think of Whittaker’ 1975 book.

      And the recent Hubbell book (or John Harte book) are good examples as well where the idea was too big to fit into a paper and got better cited as books.

  2. With my book now wending its laborious way through the final stages of reviewing and preparation for publication, I can offer two words of advice. The first is don’t write a book unless you have a burning desire to do so. I did, and am still glad to have done it, as are many other authors I’ve spoken to. It will however consume all your energy and detract from many other things which you may wish to keep doing (like writing papers, seeing graduate students, sleep, etc.). Second, I don’t know how long your sabbatical is, but I wouldn’t plan to take six months out and emerging with a fully-formed manuscript at the end of it. I’m not going to say how long you need — that depends on the level, content and length, combined with your own writing ethic — but you should anticipate that it will continue to occupy some portion of your time for a number of years. Use the sabbatical to get the framework and overall narrative in place, but recognise that you are committing yourself to something much more than a large number of words. When publishing a paper you have to deal with the reviews, the revisions, the resubmissions… and it can haunt you for several years after the ‘work’ was finished. The chores are different for a book but they take up at least as much time as the actual ‘writing’. If you do then good luck and feel free to get in touch about it.

    • Writing as someone who has written book books and edited books – they take a lot more time than you think they will – I actually find that edited books are harder because you have generally (unless it is a conference proceedings) chosen friends as chapter authors, because you think you will be able to twist their arms more easily – not so! If you have written on a topic no-one else has then your book will get cited – The Ecology of Insect Overwintering (written in 1993) is still picking up a reasonable number of citations. One reason why UK authors are less likely to write books until they retire is because our various research assessment exercises have not really regarded books as valuable scientific outputs – thirty years ago a book used to help you get promoted – being cynical I think it is more likely to hold you back.

      I have number of books I want to write, but they are waiting for my retirement 😉

  3. I agree that comparing books to papers is misleading. Citations aren’t the point of books, even if written for colleagues. Papers are better for airing self-contained new ideas or findings, while books are more useful when they provide coherent syntheses of existing literature. Since the original articles should always be cited, to me at least it seems natural that individual papers should be cited more – I would guess this has generally been the case in science, as opposed to the humanities. Even professionals though, can benefit from reference books if they don’t have easy access to the original literature, which are often stuck behind pay walls.

    Whether or not the book will be popular and sell – that’s another matter. I recently contributed to an edited volume just for the experience of having done so; I probably wouldn’t do it again. My sense with edited volumes is that they are not particularly useful unless presenting something that is really integrative which stands as a cohesive whole. Single or co-authored books though can be much better at doing this. That’s where careful market research comes in. I think there isn’t a substitute for understanding whether there is a niche for the topic you propose and crafting it appropriately. I also think that even within science, the types of books that could be written vary greatly – they could be instructional, thought-provoking, or synthetic of large bodies of work. Ultimately it depends on what’s needed in your field, and whether you think you could fill that need.

    • I certainly see what you mean, but basic textbooks on subjects of broad interest aren’t the sort of book I’m thinking of writing, or the sort of book my friend was musing about.

      • Jeremy, it was clear you intend to write a different book, my comment was more general. I check regularly new books on the Springer website and it is amazing that new books on basic stuff are routinely published. Then, as usual, when you read reviews, the “consensus” is that older books were better.

        I generally like focused books that develop organically a niche topic.

  4. As a lurker here and having just posted about a new BES book on our group blog (, I’ll chime in with a quick thought.

    I tend to view books in a similar way as asianelephant – as providing coherent syntheses of existing literature that go beyond what you might find in a review paper. They are also useful for bringing together people working in different ways on the same problems – again, something you don’t get in a review!

    Finally, I think they can offer an opportunity for arm-waving. Kind of what Jeremy alludes to above when he says they can be useful when you “have a body of ideas that just can’t be fully developed and well-presented in a paper or series of papers”. We do need a venue for this beyond blogs! And this function of books probably incentivizes them quite a lot for people who have something to say. Given all the pressures to publish papers (including reviews in big journals), I wonder whether this is how books will be increasingly used in the future.

  5. One advantage of books over papers is the ability to engage and inform a wide audience.

    Due to the limitations of the medium, few papers do more than add a handful of citations to contextualize a study. It is assumed that the reader understands that this paper is a response to that other study which is part of some debate which is important for various reasons. But unless the reader is a specialist in the area or has a friend, colleague, or professor who is, these necessary relations remain hidden.

    This is where books provide a unique opportunity to either synthesize a variety of perspectives on a topic or fully present a theory which otherwise exists only in disparate parts.

    The value of the book form is enabling thoughtful discussion among thoughtful people who may not be experts in the field.

    • I doubt this information is available. Sales figures are proprietary commercial information, as far as I know. Maybe unless there’s some way to scrape data from Amazon? (Amazon publicly lists the sales rank of many of the books it lists)

    • I don’t have any hard data, but it is my impression the median in ecology is at least at 300 copies/10 years, maybe double that. And of course some books do far better than that. The least sold books in ecology are the ones that expect to mostly only be bought by the large university libraries that buy pretty much everything, and the number on that is at least 100. Once smaller libraries and individuals start to buy a book the number can go up from there pretty quickly.

      Which is not to say most books are read by 1000s either. But then most papers aren’t either.

      • Brian, that was my calculation and the reason why I used the median instead of the mean, there is (clearly?) a long tail that represents very popular books. Things however will change, I am not sure that large libraries will go on buying the hard copy of books as default mode, since (I am at one of the UCs) pdfs are almost always available, at least for books published since 2002.
        My opinion is that some books are bought by those ~100 big uni libraries, then you have friends and relatives and maybe some enthusiasts, but it is still difficult to reach 300 copies. Add on top of that that those books are often very expensive relative to mean. Fermi estimate at its best.

      • Yeah – complete guess on my part too. But I suspect we’ve bracketed the right range.

  6. I know that I personally hold great value in (good) scientific books, especially when they have an appendix, glossary, and are well-organized, with good diagrams. They are great in synthesizing an overall analysis from both experimental, model, and natural history work, involving both theory and empirical data. This is significant in that typically due to the inherent complexities of biological systems, any two studies on the same topic/system often have different results. However, (tragically) books it seems are greatly undervalued. In university courses, it is typically emphasized that when writing papers, one should strive to predominantly cite articles and papers, and only as a less-than-satisfactory last resort go to a text book and cite that. It appears that there is a view that books are not really *original*, whereas articles/papers are…

  7. Good professional scientific books serve several niches, as already pointed out. For me – having left bench science and trekking trepidatiously through science policy, books that integrate recent work in the field I’m still interested in are a great way for me to keep up with those subjects, since I have far less time to roam journals then I used to. They other thing they can do is serve as a jumping off point for all sorts of exploration – if an author or editors have pulled together good thinking and well supported data on a particular subject, it can often serve as the “that’s what I was missing” piece to move someone off the dime to their next experiment, their next paper, or their next job.

    All of which leads me to another important – and blogable question – if papers in the peer reviewed literature serve as our touchstones for the presentations we do at meetings, and as the foundations for our grant applications, how do we work book chapters into that mix?

  8. Even given that a decision has been made to write a single-authored book, I wonder whether the fact that one has to pay to read a book (or go to the library) itself reduces greatly the potential impact, given the current reality that most younger people read almost exclusively things that are free and easy to access (10 or more years ago, this wasn’t the case, which might mean that the huge influence of some “older” books wouldn’t be realized in the current academic culture). If that’s the case, then why not just produce your own book, make a pretty PDF, and make it freely available to all? Or even have a free web version too that’s easy to navigate and use with a tablet or smart phone? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hypothesize that such a book would be more widely read than one published the “normal” way. Certainly there are some reasons not to do this, in particular the role of editor/publisher in making the book better, but do these outweigh the costs? I don’t know the answers, but obviously I wonder…

    • Yeah, on that old thread about my book proposal, someone asked me why I didn’t just self-publish a pdf. At the time, I basically said that I wouldn’t because a self-published book wouldn’t be respected by my colleagues in the same way as a conventionally-published book, and that at least some colleagues were less likely to read a self-published book. And as you say, professional editors, copy editors, typesetters, and graphic designers make books a lot better. But you’re right that other people probably would be more likely to read a self-published book.

      Like you, I find it difficult to weigh these considerations. Times are changing, which makes it hard to decide on the best thing to do. Which maybe is inconsistent of me. After all, I blog, so clearly I’m comfortable with giving away my writing in a newfangled form that’s likely to be read by certain sorts of people but less likely to be read by others! But somehow, doing the same for a book seems like a difficult choice to me…

      • It might be that a more current grad students would read a free-self-published PDF. But I don’t think that is a given – the main value of a publisher is promotion (even if its only putting books on display at conferences and sending out fliers). Getting read as a free, self-published PDF basically depends on the book “going viral” which has a large element of chance to it.

        And I think it is very certain that more senior ecologists would be more likely to read a book from a respected press. And it certainly looks better on a CV (and is a more acceptable for the inevitable dip in journal publications).

        I have not taken this route but some authors increasingly have their cake and eat it too by going through a publisher and then (illegally) anonymously posting their PDF to one of several sites that contain PDFs of academic books. I have been increasingly convinced that it is often the authors who post to these sites because of the speed with which they appear and the fact that they are not scanned. There are multiple ethical questions in that act but it is a reality these days.

  9. Thanks for raising a timely and interesting question. I of course am biased in my response, but I would be willing to gather data on why science books matter. I have acquired books in the life sciences for Chicago for more than 20 years, and those books, thanks to their authors, have helped synthesize and cohere new fields of inquiry, and cultivate the kind of intellectual creativity that the bounded limits of journal articles don’t allow. And now, in the face of a constant flow of uncurated information on the web, there is no better time for books to help readers and students identify ideas of lasting import, or those of intellectual experiment. Don’t give up on books- or the writing thereof. The enduring nature of the form remains critical today.
    Okay, now off the soapbox.

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