Response from Chicago

The first response to my enquiry from the post on Traditional vs. Online Publishing comes from Jennifer Howard who is an Associate Editor for Physical Sciences at Chicago University press. The response comes in two parts, the first addressing the general issue of whether it is better to publish traditionally or online and the second addressing the specific questions that I asked. Here’s a quote from the first part:

The University of Chicago Press is a non-profit publisher, although we are one of the largest university publishers today . Our primary mission (carefully monitored by the University of which we are a part) is to help disseminate scholarly information. If a given work is already successfully distributed on the internet, my feeling is that a printed book is often not needed. For the prospective author considering whether to post or publish, however, there are a few issues to take into account:

1.) A print book is often better than an online publication when it’s longer than 100 pages. Most people don’t want to read an entire book online, though shorter snippets are usually fine. Most of our external reviewers, for example, decline the opportunity to read the electronic version of a manuscript, asking instead for a hard copy.

2.) A book, published by a university press, has a reputation and vetting process behind it. External experts from the author’s own field review and recommend improvements to the text prepublication. There are also copyeditors correcting typos and checking references. You know something about the quality of what you read or assign in class.

3.) As you mention on your blog, a book has the publisher’s advertising and marketing support behind it.

4.) For more established scientists, a book can be a capstone on a prestigious career. [I confess, I do not usually encourage younger scientists to write books--their case for tenure could be harmed if they are writing books rather than publishing original research articles. If a younger scientist has already written the bulk of the manuscript or feels strongly about publishing a book, however, I will consider it with the same care I would give to a more senior author.]

5.) A book also has a publisher working to secure its translation into other languages, something that is rare for online publications unless you have enterprising volunteers.

6.) A book has permanence–you can always access it, it’s not going to be taken offline or moved when the author goes to another university, gets bored with hosting a website, etc… Books are registered with the Library of Congress, for example, and can sit on the shelf until they are needed.

These are some good points about the benefits of traditional publishing, many of which I missed in my original post. There are a few things I disagree on though:

  • Firstly, if an online manuscript is popular and successful then I think that is exactly when it might be a good idea to publish it as a book, rather than just having the electronic version. Even if they have access to something online, people still want hard copies, and I think the interest generated by the electronic version would actually increase the sales of the book, particularly if the price is not set too high.
  • I’m not sure about the comment about young scientists writing books in point 4. I guess it is good advice in most of Physics, particularly in fast-moving, popular areas of research in which people are primarily judged by publications and citations. However, in less mainstream areas, such as the foundations of physics, having a longer-form to set out your ideas coherently can be a big advantage. Also, what about fields in which it is common practice to publish your Ph.D. thesis as a monograph? The point is just that the validity of this advice is heavily subject-dependent.
  • Point 6 is quite relevant at the moment, but I think it will disappear in the long term. Part of the reason for asking about repositories like arXiv, Connexions and Open Courseware is just that they are supposed to be more permanent than the author’s own website. Eventually, I imagine they will be integrated into the doi system, and that the Library of Congress might want to include them in its catalogues. I agree that the current systems for collating and cataloguing online academic texts are rather haphazard, so this might be a reason to go the traditional route for now.

For the second part of the response, I’ll respond to the responses in a bit more detail:

As some of your commentators suggested would be the case, I cannot claim any of the below responses to be Press policy. Hopefully, they give you a sense of my practices as an editor.

Yes, I would consider a manuscript that has been previously posted on the internet. This isn’t all that unusual and can provide an author with useful feedback.

I do not receive a lot of requests from authors to leave manuscripts online–most are glad to encourage readers to turn to the printed book, given the work they have put into writing the project. There are cases in which our authors have maintained online manuscripts, however, even after publication of their book. If you look at our list prices for these books, you will see why a lot of people are happy to buy them outright.

Well, the fact that leaving something online is an option with Chicago is definitely a plus point. Personally, I think we’ll see an increasing number of authors wanting to do this as a more internet-savvy generation begins to write books. Attitudes to Intellectual Property are changing, so I think academic authors will eventually become less concerned about whether or not people buy the hard copy book.

On posting with other sites. At this point, I haven’t considered this–noone has asked me for the opportunity. To be honest, we would probably have to evaluate it on a case-by-case basis in conversation with the author.

ArXiv.org– I believe a few of our authors probably post early drafts on ArXiv.org for feedback. Most ArXiv readers, however, are more interested in early news of new research. Because books are more often summations of existing literature–for the reference of researchers or for students in courses, I think these drafts are less often consulted at ArXiv. Some of your readers may have additional insight on this.

I know of at least one case of a book on arXiv, which I have mentioned previously on this blog. That’s the recent translation of the 1927 Solvay proceedings by Bacciagaluppi and Valentini (not exactly early news of new research!). Personally, I found the arXiv version enormously helpful.

I don’t think the question of what most arXiv readers currently use it for is particularly relevant. The arXiv can cater to niche audiences as well as mainstream ones. It is pretty flexible, so they could introduce new categories for books if there is the demand. Part of the reason for posting something there would be to have more permanence than you would get on your own website.

On licensing and rights. The licenses you list below can be good, usually if the author does not intend to publish with a publisher. The author at least establishes her or his ownership of the material, though with the internet, any right restrictions that exist in the contract are, in reality, somewhat illusory. Anyone across the world can pick up the material from the web, and it becomes quite difficult to track someone who is using the material in a way that is restricted, moreso to prosecute illegal use.

Agreed. I’m actually imagining that most authors using these licenses would not want many restrictions on how the material is used, particularly with regard to making copies and using the material in lectures. I still think you should ALWAYS explicitly license an electronic book in some way, because it makes it clear to the reader what the allowed usage is and avoids legal ambiguities. I imagine that the license would only be enforced in cases of extreme violation, e.g. if someone is exploiting the work for commercial gain without permission.

Any publisher will need the exclusive right to publish the print book. If one of the licenses below prevented that, we could be in a situation where a fly-by-night operation without a vetting process could publish a version of the book that looks like ours and takes advantage of our reputation and promotion efforts. This, without securing expert review and subsequent revisions or doing the kind of careful copyediting that transforms a manuscript into a published book. This would be harmful to a publisher’s good reputation and ultimately to our books and authors. I would not decline a book because it was licensed under one of these licenses, but we would have to find a way for the Press to be the sole publisher of the material.

This is more or less the answer I expected and is fair enough in the current IP climate. However, some of the licenses I mentioned would definitely be ruled out by this, e.g. I don’t believe the GNU license has provision to distinguish a published version from an electronic version. Probably, one of the Creative Commons licenses allows for this, but I’d have to look into the details to determine which one.

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One Comment on “Response from Chicago”


  1. Dear Matt,

    Thanks for your comments. I will certainly take them in to account as I continue to think about these issues.

    Regards, Jennifer Howard


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