What is a book? The perspective of a medical books editor

The Academic Book of the Future Project focuses primarily on the arts and humanities – but what do other areas have to say about the future of the academic book, and what are the shared issues and questions across disciplines? Project Manager Rebecca Lyons recently met Nisha Doshi, Senior Commissioning Editor for medical books at Cambridge University Press and 2015 Kim Scott Walwyn Prize shortlisted candidate to discuss the situation in STM publishing. Nisha had the following thoughts, questions, and insights from her experience as a medical books editor…

As a commissioning editor of medical books with an academic background in the humanities, I’ve been very interested to follow the work of the Academic Book of the Future project. While this project is identifying and exploring important questions of relevance to scholarly book publishing as a whole, its focus on arts and humanities publishing has given me the opportunity to think about STM (and particularly medical) books publishing from different perspectives. Answers to many of the project’s research questions might apply regardless of a book’s subject matter, while others are likely to be radically different in different disciplines, and in some cases we face very different if not completely contrasting challenges in STM compared with arts and humanities book publishing. This has prompted me to give some thought to questions such as ‘what is a book’ and ‘what is the role of an academic book publisher’ in the context of both medical and broader academic book publishing.

Our authors and readers are facing increasing pressures on their time, coupled with the need to publish their work in high-impact journals (however defined), while the volume of published books continues to grow. This statement could perhaps characterise any subject area. However, while potential authors in humanities subjects still very much want to write books (in a 2014 OAPEN-UK survey, 95% of respondents in the humanities and 72% of respondents in the social sciences considered it ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to publish a monograph), the opposite is increasingly true of many medical specialties. Immediately therefore, the role of a commissioning editor and a publisher of medical books is very different from one in history, for example. A large part of my job involves persuading potential authors that it is still worth their while writing or editing books (print and/or ebooks) and chapters. I would therefore argue that to stay relevant and competitive as a medical/STM books publisher, it is essential that we have answers to questions such as: How can we improve our abilities to demonstrate the value of writing or editing books (and related digital products) to potential authors? Related to this and perhaps more importantly, how can we improve the ways in which we demonstrate the ‘impact’ of published books, both qualitatively and quantitatively?

The topic of impact has of course been debated in journals publishing for some time, and there is much we can learn from this as book publishers. I was particularly interested to learn of the recent Bookmetrix venture between Altmetric and Springer. However, I don’t think we can simply import journals-originated measures of impact without considering the challenges posed by the persistence of print in much of books publishing. We can measure print sales, of course, but how do we measure or demonstrate the impact of a print book or chapter referred to daily in clinical practice as opposed to one sitting on a shelf, collecting dust? Can we go beyond reviews, anecdotes and reputation to objectively measure the impact of books, both print and e?

Another issue arising in journals publishing is the place for datasets and code (open or otherwise). For example, the University of Minnesota Press has recently announced a new platform which will provide access to primary research documents and data alongside digital books. Should we redefine the medical/STM/academic book to include primary data or instead should the book serve a different role, synthesising data and evidence with accompanying authoritative commentary and guidance?

And what about other media formats? For many years, medical publishers (including Cambridge University Press) have been packaging videos with our books. It now almost goes without saying that printed medical books are packaged with online access to the book’s content, often supplemented by extra online content. Video content demonstrating ultrasound-guided regional anaesthesia is just one example from a medical specialty I work with, and we would certainly define this content as part of a ‘book’. The same applies for animations, interactive self-assessment questions, audio clips… How far do we take this, though? Would a set of video tutorial ‘chapters’ still be a ‘book’? Does it matter what we call the product, so long as it serves the needs of our users (and sells well, from a commercial perspective)? As text and images are increasingly joined or even replaced by other forms of content, our ‘products’, roles and workflows are evolving rapidly while our core goals and audiences often remain the same.

On the subject of our target audience, I often read and hear about the challenge of moving from sales and marketing activities and business models targeted at institutions, to those targeted at individual users. For ‘professional’ publishing such as Cambridge University Press’ medical books programme, this is perhaps less of a new concept than it might be for other areas, since our books have always been aimed primarily at individual medical professionals or trainees. It often surprises me that the importance of understanding the needs of individual researchers, clinicians, students or educators remains a topic worthy of comment at academic publishing events – surely this is already fundamental to the work we do every day as commissioning editors.

Increasingly, and again echoing journals publishing, the question of open access is rarely far from our minds when we consider the future of the academic book. So far in books publishing, this debate and associated new ventures have tended to focus on monographs, for example Cambridge University Press’ open access monograph publishing service. The growth of the ‘free open access medical education’ movement (FOAM or FOAMed) has seen an explosion of freely available educational blogs, podcasts, tweets, videos, text and much more content, particularly in emergency medicine and critical care; much of this overlaps with educational and clinical content traditionally found in books, competing for the time and attention of our authors and readers. All of this makes it even more important that we as medical book publishers define and redefine our products, our role and our business models.

Lastly, moving from the familiar lifecycles of print editions to continuously or regularly updated digital books brings further challenges and opportunities, including very practical issues such as version control (discussed in detail here), workflows and, returning to where I started, pressures on the time of both authors and publishing staff.

There are of course many other topics and questions that I have not addressed here, including increased flexibility with the size and length of ‘book’ content afforded by digital publishing, repurposing chunks of existing content into new or personalised ‘books’ and products, peer review as applied to book publishing, subscription and many other sales models – to name but a few. How far should we take all of these opportunities and models, and might we risk undermining some of the strengths of the ‘book’ as a coherent whole and intentionally designed package of valuable and authoritative content, as we attempt to redefine the book to encompass or compete with a plethora of formats and publishing models? This blog post is not an attempt to provide answers to the questions and challenges facing us in medical or academic book publishing, nor am I claiming to say anything that has not been said before. I hope that it serves simply to outline some of the challenges and opportunities facing us as we strive to provide attractive products and services for our authors and readers, as I see them at present. I very much hope to have the opportunity to explore some of these and other questions further with the Academic Book of the Future project and would love to hear the thoughts of others.



Nisha DoshiNisha Doshi is Senior Commissioning Editor for medical books at Cambridge University Press. This post reflects her personal opinions and is not necessarily representative of the views of Cambridge University Press. Nisha tweets as @nishadoshi