What does the era of the web mean for academic publication?

Written by Joseph Hilbe on . Posted in Features

The first textbook I wrote was published 45 years ago in 1970. Since then I’ve written a number of books, including authoring or co-authoring seventeen books on statistical modelling since 2001. During this period the landscape for both publisher and author has changed considerably. This is particularly the case since the creation of the internet and with it, the advent of peer-to-peer file sharing (P2P), which began with Napster in 1999.

University and college professors have long copied journal articles and at times book chapters for the use of their students. Notices would occasionally come from the university legal department admonishing faculty that distributing copies of journal articles or book chapters to class members was a violation of copyright law. But many professors ignored these notices, or tried to get around them. For the most part, such practices did little if any harm to the journal publishing the article, or to the author of a book from which parts were duplicated.

However, now some professors upload an entire book to their website, or to the departmental website, to allow students access to the material in a book without having them purchase it. In addition, P2P networks have become available over the web. Anyone may access these sites and download complete PDF copies of text and research books for free, or for some relatively minor subscription charge. Fee users of P2P sites may download as many books as they desire for the term of their subscription.

With the high cost of most university textbooks, it is indeed tempting to provide one’s students with electronic access to a course text, particularly if the professor wishes to have students read more than one book for the course, or if the course is based on partial reading material from several books. This is generally the case for texts used for upper division and graduate level courses. The foremost publishers of these post-introductory texts, which I refer to as professional statistics books, include Chapman & Hall/CRC (Taylor & Francis), Springer, Cambridge University Press, Wiley, Elsevier/Academic Press, and to a lesser extent Oxford University Press. The mean price of professional statistics texts from these publishers runs some $90, with the far majority of books costing between $35 and $150.

From my experience and research, the majority of individuals purchasing professional statistics books are professors wishing to update their knowledge of a specific area or looking to learn about new and developing areas of statistics. Researchers and analysts throughout the world also read these books for the same reason as professors, except for use in teaching courses. These are the texts that summarize our knowledge of various specialized areas in statistics, or in some cases advance statistical knowledge, create new areas of statistics, or develop new statistical methods and tests. They are books that are vital to the profession. But if a researcher needs to purchase several of these texts for their work, there is an incentive to look for discounted pricing, and to P2P sites.

The majority of professional books are not now greatly affected by unauthorized downloading, but more and more P2P sites are cropping up. I am continually getting emails from readers of my books, informing me of some P2P site where one of my books can be downloaded without cost. When I check the site, I can also see a host of other statistics books available too. Publishers attempt to shut these sites down, but when they do, another, like the mythical Lernaean Hydra, appears to take its place. It is likely that many new P2P sites are old ones resurrected with new names. But nevertheless the industry is expanding, to be sure. Running a P2P can be a lucrative enterprise with practically no overhead costs.

Surveys that have been made regarding the downloading of books from P2P sites tell us that the majority of students believe that obtaining books without cost, or for a minimal charge, from a file sharing site is not morally wrong and should be allowed. Other students think that downloading may be ethically marginal, but should not be illegal. They do not believe that it is theft.

Such views are encouraged, I believe, when professors post books for download, or do not discourage them from using P2P sites. Moreover, it is likely that these students will continue to believe that using P2P sites is permissible and will continue to use them in the coming years. If more and more professional books are downloaded without remuneration to the publisher, either the cost of books will have to rise, or the publisher will be forced to stop publishing technical and more theoretical niche statistics books. They may also be forced to focus on publishing e-books that can be designed so that they cannot be copied following a download from the publisher’s site. Authors may also begin to rethink writing these books.

Most of the books I have authored or co-authored have been written for the purpose of providing researchers with better or clearer guidelines and information than I think was previously available for specific areas in statistical modelling, but I admit that I am still motivated by royalties. Royalty payments for professional level academic books, even though not close to what many authors get in the trade book field, give authors something for the substantial number of hours they devote to researching and writing books. I don’t know any other author who simply does not care for royalties, if their work warrants such.

If P2P sites are left unchecked, publication of professional books may well diminish, and the books that are published will likely be restricted. There will be changes ahead that I think most of us in the academic and research world will come to regret. I encourage academics and researchers/analysts alike, as well as students at every level, to forgo the temptation to download books from P2P sites. So doing will help preserve academic publishing and writing as we know it.


The views expressed in the Opinion section of StatsLife are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Statistical Society.

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