Rebuilding the high walls of solid scholarship

Since the mid-20th century, knowledge generally regarded as reliable, or scholarly, has been concentrated largely in journals, something that has its origins in the first scientific periodicals of the mid-1600s in Europe.  

Without legislation or international agreements, journal editors and publishers follow a set of rules, the most important of which are the need for originality, a full disclosure of methods, coherent and honest reporting of data subjected to proper statistical analysis and a full citation of all sources.

The system depends on independent peer review and the authoritative discretion of reputable editors. Metaphorically, knowledge can be seen as a massive and increasingly high wall or tower built of large numbers of relatively small, individually checked bricks — the articles themselves.

But to some participants in this system, the largest co-operative effort ever undertaken by humankind, books have begun to look like too-large, perhaps suspect or duplicated and not quite trustworthy elements in the edifice of scholarly literature.  

More than 92% of the published research from local universities accredited by the department of higher education and training are journal articles. Books make up a mere 3%. Conference papers, which are highly variable in quality, make up the rest.

A tolerated appendage
Books ruled the scholarly roost from the dawn of systematic science when humans began to generate and use knowledge co-operatively and cumulatively. Now they are in danger of becoming a kind of poorly tolerated appendage of the knowledge system, squeezed out of academic libraries by expensive subscriptions for journals and especially by the bundles of journal titles packaged together by publishers, raking in big bucks on the backs of the hard labour of article authors and peer reviewers.

The niche for books in higher education and scholarly exchange may well ultimately shrink to the essentially knowledge-reproductive domain of textbooks and compendiums of organised thinking about topics of professional concern. Is this a bad thing we need to do something about?

The Academy of Science of South Africa, established in 1996 as a "new South Africa" institution and given statutory recognition by Parliament in 2001, has addressed the worrying decline of scholarly books within its broader scholarly publishing programme directed at the improvement of the quality and visibility of South African journals, arising from a comprehensive 2006 study of more than 250 of them.

There was widespread concern in the research and policymaking sectors that scholarly books were undervalued, mainly because the criteria for evaluating them were weak and inconsistent.   

The academy convened a panel of senior local scholars, mostly drawn from the broad humanities, who investigated all aspects of scholarly book publishing in and from South Africa. Taking into account that an essentially new world of publishing was emerging as a result of the electronic revolution, the panel assessed the nature and significance of contemporary scholarly books and their use and importance, locally and in broader contexts.

It concluded that scholarly books often provided a special and essential structural element, or weight-bearing structure, in the metaphoric wall or tower of total accumulated knowledge, just like some articles — such as the short letter in Nature in 1953 that announced the double helical structure of DNA — are vastly more significant than the great majority of the other articles in the literature.

Thinking big
Good books are deep and extended scholarship — authoritative, fully evidenced, well-reasoned, "thinking big" treatments of major topics of central concern. The generation of major collected works through co-operative work by senior scholars who are specialised in different aspects of particular problems is also a driver of collaboration and synthetic insights that cannot easily be achieved by searching for the assorted articles that may, if one is lucky, allow a similar advance to be made.

Publishing high-quality scholarly books is expensive, even when they are e-books that do not have to be printed. The result is that many ­valuable books are not seeing the light of day.

Therefore, book-publishing decisions need to be freed from purely commercial considerations. A national scholarly books fund, such as in Canada, would enable authors and publishers to overcome the cost constraint, as would the realisation by vice-chancellors and university councils that books arising from research conducted by their staff are as important as other outputs such as graduated research students, or journal articles.

The academy's panel recommended the formation of a standing scholarly book publishers' forum, which was launched at the Cape Town Book Fair last month, and it is now working on a proposal to the government for a national fund.

Knowing how to distinguish scholarly books from other academic books is clearly a prerequisite to achieving a restoration of these kinds of documents to their rightful place in the knowledge system. The key is the same basic criterion of originality that is used for journal articles: if a book sets out extended novel findings or ideas, or a profound new synthesis from existing information, it is scholarly, whether it has one author or several.

The biggest quality assurance problem in the acceptance of scholarly books as valid and significant parts of the reliable literature is the difference between the peer-review processes used in the two categories of publication.

Unlike the many independent reviews of submitted articles performed by experts ("peers") in journal publishing, book publishers are constrained by the length and scale of their book submissions to use a variety of review mechanisms that are much less standardised than those of journals. They are more inclined to use overall judgments by individual reputable authorities than many detailed, improvement-oriented criticisms by experts.

The new forum established in June is examining ways to strengthen the methods of co-operative quality assurance of books without imposing delays, extra costs or other problems.

Open access
A key issue in the rapidly evolving e-books era is open access, which allows all who wish to read a publication to read it free online. The world of journals is undergoing a dramatic shift in its long-term paradigm — from pay-to-read subscriptions to a pay-to-publish business model that requires authors, institutions or funders to pay so that all others can read for free, or to hybrid models in which both ways of meeting the costs of publication are used by one journal. The experience of the HSRC (Human Sciences Research Council)Press in South Africa has shown that online availability of its scholarly books can enhance the marketing and sales of print copies.

Very few well-controlled studies have been done on the possible systematic value to students of the kinds of "deep learning" that might be gained from the cover-to-cover reading of scholarly books as opposed, perhaps, to the prescribed use of "course packs", composed of diverse snippets of material. Thorough absorption in the extended and sustained arguments found in books may well foster the productive acquisition of reading habits that last a lifetime, and the emergence of the kinds of scholars and scientists who understand the evolution of big ideas and may therefore generate some of their own.

Professor Wieland Gevers is a ­former senior deputy vice-­chancellor of the University of Cape Town and chairs the Academy of ­Science of South Africa's committee on scholarly publishing

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