In defence of the book and other thoughts on the digitalization of knowledge « Tony Bates
In defence of the book and other thoughts on the digitalization of knowledge
I have been struggling with the concept of books and publishing for some time now. I have authored over 10 books published ‘traditionally’, i.e. through a commercial publisher, and have just completed a manuscript on ‘The strategic management of technology in universities and colleges’, to be published by Jossey-Bass in early 2011. I also am under contract to Routledge for a third edition of ‘Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education’, to be published in late 2011.
My conflict comes from several concerns:
1. Is a printed book still an appropriate form of communication of ideas in a digital world?
2. Why go through a publisher who will charge a hefty price for the book, when it could be openly published for free?
3. To what extent is knowledge dependent on or changed by the form of its representation? In other words, is there something special about knowledge in a book form that differentiates it from other ways of representation?
[Note to readers: are there other concerns about books that should also be addressed?]
There is a whole set of issues here that need to be unpicked.
Form and function
This addresses to some extent the first question. Does the form or technological representation of a book matter any more? Is a book still a book if downloaded and read on an iPad or Kindle, rather than as printed text?
For the purposes of knowledge acquisition, it probably isn’t any different. Indeed, for study purposes, a digital version is probably more convenient because carrying an iPad around with maybe hundreds of books downloaded on it is certainly preferable to carrying around the printed versions of the same books. There are still complaints by students about the difficulties of annotating books on the Kindle, but this will almost certainly become a standard feature available for e-books in the future.
If the whole book is downloaded, then the function of a book doesn’t change much just because it is available digitally. However, there are some subtle changes. Some would argue that scanning is still easier with a printed version. Have you ever had the difficulty of finding a particular quotation in a digital book compared with the printed version? Sure, you can use the search facility, but that means knowing exactly the correct words or the name of the person being quoted. With a printed book, I can often find a quotation just by flicking the pages, because I am using context and rapid eye scanning to locate the source, even when I don’t know exactly what I am looking for. On the other hand, searching when you do know what you are looking for (e.g. a reference by a particular author) is much easier digitally.
The other thing that happens when books are digitally available is that often, users can download only selected chapters. This is valuable if you know just what you want, but there are also dangers. For instance in my upcoming book on the strategic management of technology, the last chapter summarizes the rest of the book. The temptation then would be to just download the final chapter. You’d have all the important parts of the book, right? Well, no. What you would be missing is the evidence for the conclusions. Now the book on strategic management is based on case studies, so it would be really important to check back with how we have interpreted the case studies to get to the conclusions, as this will affect the confidence you would have as a reader in the conclusions we have drawn. If you download the digital version of only the last chapter, you also lose the context of the whole book. Having the whole book gives readers more freedom to interpret and add their own conclusions than just having a summary chapter. I’ll come back to the structure of a book and the value of a book structure later in this blog.
In conclusion, then, there are advantages and disadvantages of digitalizing a book, but the essence of a book is not greatly changed when it becomes digital rather than printed.
Open versus commercial
In general, I support the idea that knowledge should be free. Who’s against motherhood? However, I also believe a person should be paid what they are worth, and writing a book is a great deal of work. Maybe at the start of my career, I would have done it for nothing, just to get published, especially if I was employed full time as an academic. But I don’t need to be published at any price now. It takes me about nine months hard work to write a book from scratch, and as I am not paid a salary to do research or publish, I do want to get some financial compensation for it. Put another way, if knowledge should be free, why pay instructors to teach? Same principle.
On the other hand, I am not looking to get rich, and I want to balance the need to earn money against the need for the book to be as widely read as possible, so my main aim is to keep the cost of the book down as far as possible. This is difficult going through a commercial publisher. Publishers take between 85-90% of the revenues from books, and authors are lucky if they get 12% for an academic book. Some publishers, such as IGI Global, are totally unscrupulous, paying no royalties whatsoever to authors, and charging very high prices.
However, good publishers (and Jossey-Bass has been a good publisher to me) do add value for the author. The first is that they have a rigorous selection process before issuing a contract that requires a fair amount of research on the part of the author. This weeds out a lot of poorly thought through proposals, and provides invaluable feedback to the author before starting work on the manuscript, saving a great deal of the author’s time. Second, commercial publishers provide independent peer review of the manuscript and detailed copy editing before publication that almost always leads to improvements in the manuscript. Thirdly, they market the book, although this is probably the least satisfactory aspect of commercial publishers for most academic authors, who never feel that their books are marketed properly. But overall, a good publisher adds value and quality to a publication, and does provide some financial return to the author.
Open publishing addresses some of these issues but not all. First, although it is possible to develop an open publishing business model that provides a fair financial return to an author, most don’t. The principle of ‘free’ is in general more important to the open publishing community (although if readers want a print version, they do have to pay for the costs of printing and shipping). Open publishing does usually include a stringent peer review process, but not always. Lastly, although this will change, marketing through open publishing remains a concern for many authors. Will an open publisher attract as many readers as a commercial publisher? At the moment, I would say not, but I have no evidence one way or the other.
Currently, the balance remains for me with a commercial publisher, and this means in my case both a print and an electronic version of the book. I now have more royalties from sales of electronic versions of my Jossey-Bass books than from the print versions, even though they are mainly used as textbooks. However, if I was not already satisfied with a commercial publisher and had not published a book before, would I go to open publishing? Probably, but for me at this point in time it seems a bigger risk, and there is a certain loyalty to my current publishers. Better the devil you know….
The book and knowledge
Much more interesting than the question of convenience or usability, or the grubby financial aspects of publishing, is the question of whether books remain essential for creating and disseminating academic knowledge. In particular, can other forms of digital publishing, such as blogs, wikis, and social networks, replace the academic role of books? Here we need to address the function and structure of books, whether distributed electronically or in print. (My comments refer mainly to single-authored or jointly written books. I have become increasingly disenchanted with edited books by multiple authors, which often lack coherence or consistency. I think the chapters would be more useful if made available individually online, then maybe linked together on a collaborative basis.)
First, I believe that academic knowledge is a specific form of knowledge that has characteristics that differentiate it from other kinds of knowledge, and particularly from knowledge or beliefs based solely on direct personal experience. I have already discussed this in another blog, but in summary, academic knowledge is a second-order form of knowledge that seeks abstractions and generalizations based on reasoning and evidence. (This does not mean there is only one form of academic knowledge though – there can be different epistemological approaches to academic knowledge.)
Fundamental components of academic knowledge are transparency, codification (written or recorded in some format), reproduction, and communicability. Transparency means that the source of the knowledge can be traced and verified. Codification means that the knowledge can be consistently represented in some form (words, symbols, video). Knowledge can be reproduced or have multiple copies, necessary for communication. Lastly, knowledge must be in a form such that it can be communicated and challenged by others. The book has proved to be a remarkably powerful medium for the development and transmission of academic knowledge, since it meets all the criteria.
To what extent can new media such as blogs, wikis, and digital electronic networks replace the book in academic knowledge? New media can in fact handle just as well some of these criteria, and provide indeed added value, such as speed of reproduction and ubiquity, but I will argue that the book still has some unique qualities. As an author who writes both books and blogs, the advantage of a book is that it allows for the development of a sustained, coherent, and comprehensive argument with evidence to support the argument. Blogs can do this only to a limited extent (otherwise they cease to be blogs and become a digital book).
Quantity is important sometimes and books allow for the collection of a great deal of evidence and supporting argument, and allow for a wider exploration of an issue or theme. A consistent and well supported argument, with evidence, alternative explanations or even counter positions, requires the extra ‘space’ of a book. Above all, books can provide coherency or a sustained, particular position or approach to a problem or issue, a necessary balance to the chaos and confusion of the many new forms of digital media that constantly compete for our attention, but in much smaller ‘chunks’ that are overall more difficult to integrate and digest.
A new niche for books in academia
We have seen historically that new media often do not entirely replace an older medium, but the old medium finds a new ‘niche’. Thus television did not lead to the complete demise of radio. Similarly, I suspect that there will be a continued role for the book in academic knowledge (as well as in other forms of knowledge, such as novels), enabling the book (whether digital or printed) to thrive alongside new media and formats in academia. However, books that retain their value academically will likely need to be much more precise in their format and their purpose than has been the case to date. Most of all, they may need to change some of their features, to allow for more interaction and input from readers, and more links to the outside world.
Lastly, this is not an argument for ignoring the academic benefits of new media. The value of graphics, video and animation fro representing knowledge, the ability to interact asynchronously with other learners, and the value of social networks, are all under-exploited in academia. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater – books are still important.
What do you think about books for learning?
Do you think the book is dead or about to become obsolete?
If you think books are still valuable for learning, what changes, if any, do you think should be made to academic books?
What would be lost if books were entirely replaced by new media? What would be gained?