Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Simon Holt. Simon is Publisher, Micro/Nanotechnologies and Reference Content Volume Strategy at Elsevier. He is a member of the Scholarly Kitchen Cabinet, the group that oversees this blog for the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) and the SSP’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. He was recently named a winner of the SSP’s 2020 Emerging Leader Award. The views expressed in this article are his own and are not necessarily those of Elsevier.
As book publishers, a critical part of our job is to understand how and why readers are using our content. The internet means that there is a great deal more content readily accessible than ever before. The quantity of research available at the click of a button nowadays can feel overwhelming – a quick look on the Scopus database, for example, reveals that, since 2016, 1,448,602 articles have been indexed on nanoscience and technology alone. In a world where we are all constantly interconnecting, interacting, and digesting content via mobile technology, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle, it seems we all have more content to digest, and less time to digest it. So, where does this leave what we publish — long-form, reflective content – i.e. books?
This post looks specifically at the role of book content in the Science, Technical and Medical (STM) researcher ecosystem. It is important at the outset to note the difference in the role of books in STM compared with Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS). A recent joint Cambridge University Press/Oxford University Press report on HSS monograph publishing concluded that ‘Monographs are the established medium for dissemination and debate of new research in HSS’. By contrast, books in an STM context provide reference content; synthesizing and building upon the research in journals to give readers the vetted, established fundamentals of a topic. This gives them the knowledge base they need to then be able to read more granular, focused journal articles with confidence. The infographic below summarises this researcher journey, starting at the bottom and working upwards.
In order to better understand how book content can help researchers, since 2017, Elsevier commissioning staff have undertaken a program of structured one-hour face-to-face interviews with researchers working in the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, and Medicine from a diverse range of countries. We ask these researchers what they feel the key drivers are in their fields, what tools and resources they use to navigate the research landscape, and what role long-form reference content (book content) plays in helping them solve research problems. We have interviewed over 400 people to date and, since 2018, we have also captured responses from over 1,000 book proposal reviewers. Here is what we found:
Books provide the bridge from theory to applications. Specifically, this means from translational and technological to clinical, from academic to industry, and from research to application.
Interdisciplinary is the new norm. Researchers identified less with a single subject area – e.g.,. chemistry, materials science, medicine etc., and tended to focus more on problems such as sustainability, artificial intelligence, or biomedicine that cut across several disciplines. This means that the range of sources a researcher uses is much wider, requiring them to dip into several different disciplines adjacent to their own core area of expertise.
There has been a move from ‘descriptive’ to ‘prescriptive’ content. The need for researchers to demonstrate real-life applications for their research when applying for grant funding has led them to seek out more applications-focused book content, rather than simply theoretical content outlining the scientific fundamentals.
Visual elements have primacy over text content. In the time-poor environment researchers inhabit, digesting information quickly is key. Several researchers mentioned video abstracts, for example, as a helpful way of quickly grasping new methods or concepts, alongside more traditional media such as tables and figures.
Trust and reputation is key. Time poverty and pressure were identified as major challenges. Many researchers spoke of increasing teaching and admin loads, and about the necessity to spend large amounts of time on grant applications, leaving much less time for research. It is therefore important that readers can quickly establish the utility of a piece of content. The reputation of the author(s), their institution(s), and the publisher for quality content are all key when a researcher is selecting quickly from a range of options on a given topic. For reference (book) content in particular, the role of references as a reading list of ‘go-to’ papers for a given topic was consistently mentioned.
How Are Researchers Using Books? Emerging Trends
Given the interdisciplinary nature of research and researchers, it was difficult to pick out distinct trends between subject areas. However, a few patterns emerged:
- Researchers across disciplines are looking for directly comparable perspectives on a given topic by a range of international research groups and find edited books to be a good way of streamlining this content in one source.
- Sustainability is a key influencer across disciplines, which is driving innovation. Scientists in all fields are looking to solve practical challenges in sustainable and ethical ways. Several researchers we spoke to were looking to make a transformative impact by applying non-traditional domain advances to their chosen field.
- In medicine, the ever-evolving nature of medical challenges (including the current COVID-19 crisis!) has led to a great emphasis on personalized treatment options as researchers seek new techniques to fight obscure and challenging diseases.
These broader trends are summarized well by Edmund Dickinson, Senior Research Scientists in Electrochemistry at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK, who commented in this interview:
The book is still prized by many researchers in science and technology as a distilled and carefully edited statement in a field. Researchers are required to become increasingly agile in terms of their ability to interpret their research in a multidisciplinary manner and may frequently have to familiarise themselves with fields of science that are distinct from their existing training. Especially in consideration of the glut of publication available in the science and technology journal literature – often of non-uniform quality – both edited chapters and monographs have an important role for familiarisation with new fields. Writing a book or book chapter may also permit a valuable pause for reflection.
What Does It All Mean? STM Books for the 2020s
As both publishers and researchers, we live in a constantly changing world. Everyone who reads this blog will be aware of the dramatic impact that digitization has had on the publishing industry in the past 25 years. As the way researchers interact with our content changes, we need to make sure our content evolves to meet their needs. Here are my conclusions on what publishers’ top three priorities need to be if books are to remain a critical part of the STM researcher infrastructure:
- Discipline boundaries no longer apply. We need to understand that our audience is now universally interdisciplinary, seeking to solve problems that cut across subject boundaries. Moreover, researchers are looking to gain quick access to, and fluency in ‘new-to-them’ subject areas and/or emerging interdisciplinary topics such as nanotechnology. It is no longer good enough to just ‘sell the chemistry collection to the chemists’. We need to make it easy for a researcher to get what they want in a flexible way that allows them to easily access a range of sources across disciplines.
- Discoverability: We need to help readers to not just find content, but also draw out the information they need from that content quickly and easily. Online content aggregators are enabling researchers to access book and journal content in the same place – they might not even know whether the original source was a journal or a book. We need to meet our readers where they are, optimizing our content in order to make it as easy as possible for them to find and use. We should be thinking about not just metadata, but also visual and even audio features, appreciating that our audience includes people with different language backgrounds, different accessibility needs and also, now, machines.
- Inclusion: One trend I have consistently noted in my time working in academic publishing is that the typical profile of authors submitting proposals to me has barely changed. It’s still very male, still mostly mid-late career academics, still mostly from Europe, North America, or Asia rather than South America or Africa. Why is this? Diversity and inclusion both within the publishing industry and within our author community is a complex problem, frequently discussed on these pages, and I will not try to solve it here. However, if we want our book content to be relevant to readers in all corners of the world, then we, as an industry, need to do a better job of embracing contributions from more diverse backgrounds, identifying those groups who are under-represented, and actively including and encouraging them to participate. The only way to ensure that we can successfully help our diverse audience of readers solve their daily challenges through high-quality reference is by actively encouraging younger authors and editors from all corners of the world and ensuring that women and men have the same opportunities.