Publishing Online vs. Traditional Academic Publishers

Lately I’ve been thinking about a few ideas for books that I might want to write at some point in the near future. However, that is not the topic of this post. Instead, I want to talk about how one should go about publishing an academic book in the post-internet age.

As an example, consider a book that arises from a lecture course. A prof teaches the same course for a few years, using feedback from the students to find out which explanations work well and which ones need to be improved. After a while s/he has established a good set of lecture notes, which might be worth making available to the wider community in book form.

These days, the lecture notes often appear online in various forms, either on the lecturer’s own website or on repositories such as MIT Open Courseware, Connexions, etc. One major advantage of this is that feedback can be obtained from an even larger pool of readers whilst the notes are still being written. However, it is actually quite a bad idea to just put lecture notes up on your own website without any form of explicit license, despite the fact that this is quite common practice in academia at the moment. You might intend the notes to be freely available, copyable and modifiable, but unless there is a specific license to this effect then standard copyright law still applies to them (at least in the US). If you later decide to publish a book based on the notes via a traditional academic publisher then they may demand that you remove the electronic version from your website after publication, forcing your future students in this subject to buy a copy of the book from them, often at an inflated price. You can avoid this by making sure you license your notes under a license that explicitly grants copying rights, such as a Creative Commons license, the GNU Free Documentation license or the Open Course license. However, if you do this then a traditional publisher may simply refuse to publish your work as a matter of policy.

My initial response to this problem is so what? After all, if the notes are widely available on the internet then why do I need to bother with a traditional publisher at all? If there is demand for a hard-copy version then it can always be made available on a self-publication service like Lulu. However, there are still a couple of reasons why you might want to publish your book via a traditional academic publisher in addition to making it available online. The first is that the academic publishers have a much better ability to promote your book than you do. If you want it to appear in university libraries, which are the main customers for academic texts, then it is still pretty much essential to publish it in the traditional way way. The second reason is the prestige attached to having a book published via a traditional academic publisher is far greater than just putting something on the net. Unlike online materials, having a traditionally published book is actually worth something on your CV, which is not a small concern for a young academic who is still trying to establish a reputation and secure a faculty position.

With this in mind, it is worth considering what the policy of the major academic publishers is on these issues. It is difficult to find out from their websites, so I recently sent out the following email to a some of them in order to test the waters. In coming weeks I will let you know their responses, and we will see which of them is most flexible towards online availability of materials.

Dear Sirs,

I am collecting information on the policy of academic publishers towards publishing works based on materials that have already appeared online. I would be grateful if you could provide answers to the following questions. Responses may be quoted on my blog


Matt Leifer

Would you consider publishing a book which had already appeared online on a website or blog maintained by the author?

Would you require the electronic version of the book to be removed from the author’s site after publication?

Would you consider publishing a book which had already appeared on a website that is not maintained by the author, such as MIT Open Courseware (, LearningSpace ( or Connexions (

Would you allow an electronic version of the book to be uploaded to a preprint server, such as

Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses ( and, if so, which ones would be acceptable?

Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License (

Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under the Open Course License (

Here is the list of publishers I have sent this email to so far. If you would like to see any other publishers included then please let me know.

University Presses

  • Oxford University Press
  • Cambridge University Press
  • Princeton University Press
  • Harvard University Press
  • MIT Press
  • University of California University Press
  • University of Chicago Press

Professional Societies

  • Institute of Physics

Other Academic Publishers

  • Springer-Verlag
  • Kluwer
  • World Scientific

10 responses to “Publishing Online vs. Traditional Academic Publishers

  1. I’d be interested to know how the University of Chicago Press would respond. They are the largest university press in the US, after all.

  2. Hi Matt,

    I’m looking forward to hearing from them, but I suspect that many of them might not have definite policies on some of these issues, working on a case-by-case basis. I was curious about the same things, as I have just published a short book on quantum computing (in Portuguese).
    What book projects have you been thinking about?

  3. I did actually contact Chicago and just forgot to include them in the list.

    No responses so far, but I agree that they might not have definite policies, so they might not want to make a statement at this level of generality. Also, I suspect they might either ignore me or pass me off to their PR people, since I said I might quote their responses on this blog. I can always follow up on this at the March meeting if I get no responses.

    As for book projects, it’s a bit early to say anything definite, but it will be a topic of a future blog post.

  4. OK, let’s try this again (my first attempt at a post vanished into cryberspace).

    Anyway, my colleague and friend Jeff Schnick has recently published an introductory physics textbook under the Creative Commons License and has come up with his own simple but ingenious marketing system – he’s arranged it so that the book’s website is among the top two or three hits (usually number one) when someone googles “calculus-based physics.”

    I find the cost of books, particularly academic and research books, to be outrageous. A nice used copy of JJ Sakurai’s text on modern QM, for example, might cost you $90. The problem stems from a) too many glossy, full-color pages in some texts (though not in Sakurai which is black-and-white), b) few paperback editions, and c) corporate greed (don’t even get me started on journals).

    Personally, I like Cambridge University Press and have noticed more people choosing to publish through them. Most of their books are available in paperback and their paperback editions hold up better than some hardbacks from other publishers. My only complaint is the low quality of photos in some reprints (e.g. Moore’s bio of Schrödinger).

  5. Pingback: Response from Chicago « Quantum Quandaries

  6. Hi,

    You know that a wise man once said: never publish faster than you can think

    Lot’s and lot’s of textbooks are just adjusted copies of the old classics. Way too many scientists want to make a good buck out of there so called….unique textbook. If you want to make money out of books, go for a business study and get the loops in your brain focus on that stuff. All science books should be free available for everybody in electronic version on the internet.

  7. Ronald,

    I totally agree about making books available for free. Having freely copyable material available is obviously a more effective method of knowledge dissemination than making people pay for books, so if there were no other issues then I wouldn’t be bothering with traditional publishers at all. My main concern is not money, since most academic books make little or no money for the authors anyway, but prestige. At the moment, having a book published by a reputable academic publisher looks good on your CV and may help with tenure review, promotion and other career advancement. Self-publishing a book on the internet confers no such advantage, so academics are naturally motivated to pursue traditional publication. Therefore, it is interesting to see if the prestige of traditional publishing can be combined with free availability of the material, or if the two will necessarily conflict.

  8. Pingback: Response from Chicago

  9. ‘My main concern is not money, since most academic books make little or no money for the authors anyway, but prestige. At the moment, having a book published by a reputable academic publisher looks good on your CV and may help with tenure review, promotion and other career advancement. Self-publishing a book on the internet confers no such advantage, so academics are naturally motivated to pursue traditional publication.’

    That’s the mediocrity publishing principle: if you don’t have anything really worth writing, get a good publisher so that – if nobody reads it – at least the author can point out that (after it is remaindered) that it was published by a famous publishing house. Very impressive!

    Two advantages of internet publication should be that an author should be able to update a publication with the latest research, and by-pass mainstream-biased peer-review. However, that’s easier said than done. I uploaded a paper to CERN document server and now can’t revise it because they prevented revisions in 2004, and of course the purpose of arXiv is not peer-review but support of mainstream ideas as they freely admit:

    ‘We don’t expect you to read the paper in detail, or verify that the work is correct, but you should check that the paper is appropriate for the subject area. You should not endorse the author … if the work is entirely disconnected with current work in the area.’

    So the internet media ends up censored (on unscientific grounds, e.g. fashion), just like mainstream print media.

  10. Well, the point of the post was to find out whether any of the traditional publishing houses would allow the book to be posted online for free in addition to them publishing the hard copy, so you cannot say that I am not in favor of online publishing. Instead, I would prefer to combine the advantages of both approaches. I am sure that most authors would like their work to be widely read, but in reality most academic books (especially things like research monographs) are only of interest to a limited community. However, they are often incredibly valuable to that particular community. Therefore, I would not equate having a small readership with a desire for mediocrity. After all, popularity is not supposed to be the criterion of value for academic work.

    The reason for wanting to publish with a well-known publisher is then just the same as the reason for wanting your papers to be peer reviewed, i.e. it provides a certification of value that the people who have to evaluate your work may not be able to determine for themselves. Of course, this is a very imperfect system, as is peer review, but it is pretty much all we have at the moment, so I would not want to throw it out completely until we have an adequate replacement.

    As for the arXiv, well that is obviously an imperfect system as well, but it is clearly better than the previous method of mailing preprints to a random cohort of researchers, i.e. at least it is open access even if you cannot post anything you like there. In my experience, the acceptance criteria are pretty lax and you can find some very non-mainstream papers on there. In most cases, very non mainstream stuff will just get pushed to the “general physics” category rather than being censored completely. Personally, I do support the idea that there should be some moderation because the arXiv would be useless as a research communication tool if mainstream researchers were uncomfortable with using it. If your work is entirely disconnected from everything on the arXiv then it is not clear to me why you would want to post it there anyway because your audience is not going to be people who read arXiv papers. You are always free to post elsewhere on the internet.

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