Given that today is April 1, which is always a good day to avoid the internet (so many attempts to be funny and clever, so few successes), I was surprised to come across two of the more perceptive articles on science publishing that I’ve seen for quite a while. If you got all your information from the science blogosphere, you’d be under the impression that all publishers are inherently evil, that they add no value whatsoever to anything, that scientists have an infinite supply of free time and that they’ll happily pitch in and do all of your work for you. So it was nice to see Larry Moran’s latest blog entry where he talks about the really hard (and expensive) work that goes into creating a textbook.

Moran cites a recent PLOS book review, where Sean Eddy takes the “information wants to be free” crowd to task for what he calls “magical thinking”:

“A more utopian “open” advocacy simply denies this real-world tension. Information wants to be free; corporations are evil; people will make great stuff for love not money; free stuff will save the developing world; we’ll pay for it with taxes and charity. You don’t have to subscribe to Ayn Rand’s brand of laissez-faire capitalism to have serious problems with this. It amounts to claiming that intellectual work doesn’t take time, or that time isn’t worth money—that intellectual property protections exist only to create profit for unnecessary middlemen, not to enable the work of talented professionals who create works that can be readily copied.”

The review discusses a new book on open education resources, and Eddy notes how woefully inadequate so many of them are, primarily because it takes time, effort and money to turn rough class notes into a truly useful educational tool:

“Nonetheless, when I actually went to these sites, it became clear how far they have to go before they can compete with a good book. Too many resources I saw were sketchy, incomplete, and unsatisfying…Distributing open-source software or open-access literature is only a matter of attaching an open license to a finished product, but most of an educator’s course materials are rarely a finished, free-standing work. Course materials are more usually fragmentary, cobbled-together aide-mémoires that only make sense in the context of face time in the course. A lot of work must go into each piece of content to raise it to the quality of textbook material, and yet more work is required to have the material best use the interactive capabilities of the Web.”

Moran takes up this theme to discuss his own textbook:

“Life is never as simple as the Web 2.0 fans make out. Somebody is going to have to do a lot of work before the quality of a website matches what’s in the best introductory textbooks. And it’s extremely naive to think that all that work is just going to be given away for free.

I’m not just talking about authors. There’s a whole team of people involved in publishing my textbooks. This includes editors who correct my spelling and grammar—an onerous task in my case. It includes artists who make the figures and editors who obtain permissions and copyrights for photographs. Then there’s the staff at the publishers who receive and mail out manuscripts for review and editing and who handle all the paperwork/electrons associated with a major project.

Are we going to ask all of them to work for free by putting everything on the web? Of course not.”

Of all the books I’ve worked on at CSHL Press, the textbooks are by far the most time-consuming, and the hardest to do well. A really well-done textbook takes an inordinate amount of editorial oversight. For example, taking chapters written by multiple authors and editing them so there’s a consistent voice throughout the entire book is no easy task. You want all of the illustrations to be done in the same style, again for consistency so a student can extrapolate between chapters, and that means hiring an illustrator for the book. These are just a few tiny factors in the big picture–a lot of hard work goes into creating a good textbook, and the people involved should see some recompense for that work.

Now, you can argue that the textbook market is a strange place, to be sure, and that big corporate publshers often do shady things in that market in the name of increased profit. And that there are some awful textbooks out there. No argument here. But expecting to replace all the hard work done on a textbook with some fuzzy entity called “the crowd” who will be doing the work out of the kindness of its heart, and thinking you’ll end up with as high quality a textbook as one put together by talented professionals is ludicrous. More from Eddy:

“Many technologists today are infected with an idea that “community is king,” that high-quality content will rain down freely merely because we connect digital communities openly. This confuses ways of sharing ideas with ways of creating ideas. It is a kind of magical thinking that has much in common with the cargo cults that cut landing strips in the jungle and carved radios from sticks in hope that more sophisticated beings would parachute technological artifacts down upon them.”

Talented people who work hard deserve to get paid for that work.

Addendum--note the comment on Moran’s blog from “anonymous” who suggests Moran just get a government grant to make his textbook free. Now, I’m sure all you scientist out there know how easy it is to procure government grants these days, right? And where does that government grant money come from anyway?

Addendum 2–how’s that textbook crowdsourcing effort in Texas working out?