Built on Facts

Scientific Publishing

Let’s say there’s an interesting but somewhat obscure book I’m interested in. Say, Electromagnetic Pulse Propagation in Causal Dielectrics. It’s a very technical work about a very specific subject, so the total print run was probably very small. Maybe a few hundred or a thousand or so? I have no idea, but it can’t be very large.

The library has it, but of the few thousand people in the world who are interested in this sort of thing, a few dozen are here at Texas A&M. The book is already both checked out and recalled; for all I know there’s recall requests stacked several deep. Now the university is a very collegial place, I’m sure I could find the person who has it and they’d let me borrow it. I don’t need it that badly though, so I’m not going to bother with all that. Either way it still wouldn’t solve the problem of there being only one physical book and many people who want to read it.

I could buy it, but if you were curious and clicked on the Amazon.com link above you’ve already seen that there’s all of one copy available from a third party seller and they want more than $400 for it. If I had that kind of money to blow, and I don’t, it wouldn’t be on this book. You see the problem.

It’s a general problem. A major publisher publishing small runs for a limited audience is expensive. Neither scientists nor libraries want to spend huge amounts of money to buy multiple copies of obscure works, and so scarcity is the inevitable result. Is there a way around this? Offhand I can think of two non-exclusive options, both of which have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Self-Publishing: Have a printing firm fire up individual copies on demand. While not necessarily cheap, it’s a lot cheaper than $400 per book. The downside is that self-publishing tends to have a stigma of low quality control and crazy and/or self-delusional authors. For science specifically, self-publishers can’t afford to hire editors to check the mathematical or scientific accuracy of the published works. I don’t think any of these are insurmountable. Quality is just a function of picking out a good printing firm, and I think scientists would be willing to take the minor caveat emptor accuracy risk if the author is known and respected in the field.

Electronic Publishing: Written a book? Slap it on the arxiv or equivalent, let everyone read it under a free Creative Commons license. The major downside here is that you’ve just written a book that you’re not getting paid for. Or, set up a paid download site where scientists can pay $10 or something to download the PDF. Scientists are a relatively conscientious lot, I think most of them would pay a reasonable price rather than bootlegging. While it still wouldn’t be a lot of money, there would be more sales and very probably more money per book for the author than in traditional commercial publishing.

Neither of these options are perfect. Still, I can’t help but feel that more options than traditional publishing would be good for science.


  1. #1 Eric Lund
    August 17, 2009

    Another option: Find a publisher who is willing to do a publish-on-demand arrangement. There is no technical reason why they can’t do this, just industry inertia. Taking a few WAGs at production costs, this should give you a typical size scientific book for a few tens of dollars in softcover: $15 for the paper (~300 pages at ~5 cents per page), $5-10 for the binding, royalty money for the author(s), $10 for shipping and handling (assume UPS ground service where available; more for air shipping or international orders), and a reasonable profit margin for the publisher. Still not cheap, but better than $400 a pop (which is outrageous even on a full professor’s salary, let alone a grad student’s).

    Digression: The reason TeX creator Donald Knuth used dollar signs as the text mode/inline math mode switch, and double dollar signs as the text mode/displayed math mode switch, was a joking nod to the fact that publishing mathematics by traditional means (which was the only option circa 1980 when he wrote TeX) really is expensive.

  2. #2 Jon Claerbout
    August 17, 2009

    I’m old and retired. I published my first 3 books with paper publishers. Since then, the next 2 are free on-line at my web site. That way I can still make updates. Users appreciate it. They can give the PDF file to the local copy company which will bind it. For me, the reason to make books is to make friends. I realize other people, especially younger people, have other needs and goals.

    An oxymoron is two self-contradicting words like “jumbo shrimp”. When the internet came along we got a new oxymoron in one word: “publication”.

  3. #3 plam
    August 17, 2009

    I get the feeling that Oughstun et al aren’t publishing for the money. They might be publishing for love rather than money, the same reason that they would publish papers. But self-publishing doesn’t realy get you much love, for the reasons you cited.

    Many scientists often also spend grant money to buy books, so it would be ideal if it was easy to send $10 of grant money to an author.

  4. #4 John H. McDonald
    August 17, 2009

    Actually, self-publishing using a print-on-demand company is both cheap and easy. After I expanded the notes for the statistics class I teach into an online textbook, some of the students said it would be easier to study from if it were in printed form. So I put all the pages into one pdf, uploaded it to Lulu.com, filled out an online form, and boom–I’d published a book. (I’m not trying to advertise Lulu–I’m sure they have competitors who are just as good). I made the pdf available on Lulu for free download, but I could have charged for that too. I set the price of the 297-page book at $16; the fact that Lulu can print and bind an individual copy for that little, and still leave some profit for them and a little over a dollar profit for me, gives you an idea of the greed and wastefulness in the professional scientific publishing industry.

  5. #5 Kenneth Finnegan
    August 17, 2009

    You may already know about it, but for one place that does both of your solutions, I would look at lulu.com.

  6. #6 Matt Springer
    August 17, 2009

    Very interesting, John. Today my interlibrary loan came in for another book (Wave Propagation and Group Velocity) by an author who has been dead for 60 years. Unfortunately current US copyright law is life + 70 years protection, so despite the fact that the author is quite beyond any further creative incentive for copyright I’m stuck. I can either 1) be stuck with the library time period, meanwhile screwing anyone else who wants to read it, 2) Pay the $300+ for a used copy online, or 3) scan it and break copyright law. No good options.

    It’s making me seriously consider releasing this site under a Creative Commons license. It’s absolutely ridiculous that I have to be dead 70 years before anyone can reprint this stuff.

  7. #7 J.J.E.
    August 18, 2009

    I’m only a little sympathetic to the profit motive here. Clearly the incentives for the author and publisher do lead to providing a product with quality control and other value added. But I think maybe copyright should only be extended 20 years for each edition. Then it enters the public domain. So, it could be that a 1st edition of a book originally published in 1989 would be now in the public domain but the 5th edition published in 2009 would still be assigned as the class book, still netting the authors royalties. There would then be increased incentive to continue updating the book with USEFUL changes but it would still give a 10-20 year window to squeeze some cash out of it even if it was only a 1st ed one-off.

    The time period after the author’s death is completely ridiculous and serves no function other than to profit the publishers. I can think of few situations where a publisher would choose to publish a book only with under the rule of “author’s life +70 years” but not if it were simply “20 years from publication”. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of books makes the overwhelming amount of their profit in the first 5 years, and the amount probably declines rapidly thereafter.

    Hi John. Nice to see another population geneticist around.

  8. #8 CCPhysicist
    August 18, 2009

    My side observation is that anyone interested in that book should be prepared to work, in public, the problem/example from Jackson of an electromagnetic wave in a dilute plasma.

    I got a chuckle out of this from the book blurb on Amazon:
    “through homogeneous, isotopic, locally linear media”
    I’ll bet they meant “isotropic” rather than “made of isotopes”. Another classic typo of the modern spell-checker era.

    Your problem with this book is that you needed to buy it in 2002 when Springer sent around the advert with it in it. They can’t afford to store unsold copies for seven years; that is what libraries are for.

    Your solution is that it is completely and perfectly legal to make single copies of a copyrighted work for research and educational purposes. You are not guilty of anything if you scan or photocopy (I recommend the latter, 2-up and double sided so you get 4 pages to each sheet of paper) the relevant parts needed for your project. The labor alone will ensure that you only reproduce the parts you need for future reference!

    If you don’t know what is allowed under copyright law, talk to a librarian or, better yet, arrange a seminar on copyright and publishing for your fellow grad students with that librarian.

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    August 18, 2009

    By the way, you should put a “call” on the book so you get in line for it. Faculty can check a book out for quite a long time even under those circumstances. But it would be even better to ask some of the usual suspects in your department if they have it, saying you are curious about it. You might get advice on one section to copy for intense reading (be sure to copy the separate notes pages) and be allowed to copy it today, and you might also meet someone who will be helpful to your career.

  10. #10 Ibid
    August 18, 2009

    I was checking out office printers awhile back and found one about 20 ft long. It was designed for printing books. You’d have thicker stock for the cover fed in through the top. It would be able to print an entire paper back book of most common sizes.
    In some sci-fi book the author had a book store with something like that in it. If the store didn’t have what you wanted and wasn’t likely to get it soon you’d just have one printed. You should be able to go to a computer, access an online system full of formatted texts of various books, buy that book for a couple of bucks, and then cough up another $8 or so to have this big machine print it for you.

  11. #11 Eric Lund
    August 18, 2009

    Your solution is that it is completely and perfectly legal to make single copies of a copyrighted work for research and educational purposes.

    IANAL, and this is not legal advice, but be careful with this one. There is a fair use defense to claims of copyright infringement, which is what this statement is referring to. But there are limits to the amount of copying you can do to succeed with such a defense. Copying one article from one issue of a journal, or one chapter from a book, is almost certainly OK. Copying the entire journal issue or the entire book is not. The more systematic your efforts, the less likely it is to qualify as fair use. The fact that you are a student at a university helps you; some copying that would be fair use for somebody in your situation has been held to be illegal when the person doing the copying is a researcher for a for-profit corporation.

    Also note the phrasing “fair use defense”. They can still sue you for copyright infringement, but if you can demonstrate that your copying falls within the bounds of fair use, you will prevail.

  12. #12 Carl Brannen
    August 18, 2009

    I published my (incomplete) introduction to density operator formalism (quantum mechanics) as an experiment on Lulu and it came out very high quality.

    I used the Memoir class and the hardback book is quite elegant, with an index, marginal notes, etc. It’s available on Lulu for 175 pages at only $28.63 (which includes a considerable profit for me). What’s more, I’ve included the LaTeX source code via links at the Lulu page here. The intention in sharing the source code is to allow other people to write physics books this way. The paper is a little lighter than what you expect for a high dollar book but I think it adequate. A blog page with high definition photos showing the excellent printing quality is here.

    I chose the size which is close to 8.5 x 11 because I wanted a textbook form. I think density matrix formalism is so much more elegant than the more common formulations of quantum mechanics that it should be the default way of teaching the subject.

    The cost to me of setting up this was zero. LaTeX is a free download, and putting a book onto Lulu is also free. To get an ISBN number you’d have to pay. I also did an experimental paperback version which is about half price. A problem was that the page sizes were slightly different and I lost the page numbers. After you upload a book, you should print out a copy for yourself to see if it’s satisfactory.

    This is definitely the way to publish small runs of scientific books and it is being done more and more.

  13. #13 MattXIV
    August 19, 2009

    I think the most practical solution would probably be site licensing electronic copies of the work. Rather than buying hard copies of the book, the university would buy an electronic copy with a license to distribute at will to it’s students and staff from the publisher. No printing overhead, no resource contention, and the editors and authors still get paid.

  14. #14 CCPhysicist
    August 23, 2009

    Good point, Eric, which is why I said “the relevant parts” and will again strongly recommend that Matt organize a seminar by one of the research librarians at his university.

  15. #15 Lem O. Ejiogu
    August 10, 2011

    Is any of you willing or (have the flexibility)
    or innovative exploration to look at this book (ALREADY


    baffled here; but, this is part of the new
    reality in correcting past errors/controersies);
    6. AND MORE; ……; AND MORE; ……&….

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