November 1, 2004

On great compendia

I recently received a "call for entries" in a planned encyclopedia (or handbook or ... the term doesn't really matter), expected to be printed by a Beaucoup Bucks publisher. Why am I so cynical about this project?

It isn't because I wasn't invited on board early—I don't have time for more projects! And it isn't because I think a reference book for social foundations is a bad idea. I think it's a wonderful idea. Nor do I think it bad because a commercial publisher will be getting the benefit of most revenues. Academic publishers do wonderful things on thin margins.

The project troubles me because it will get read and used by a small fraction of those who should read it. The concept is similar to the Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition, in terms of bringing collaborative reference works to a commercial publisher. In the case of the Historical Statistics project, the editors received an advance for the work and then commissioned chapters. The problem? Among others, the book still isn't out! (Was the advance enough to cover the work necessary to complete the project? Could the project have been funded better by a grant in return for public access to the data? I've heard similar criticisms by others, and this call for contributions reinforces my conclusions about it.)

More fundamentally, the idea is all backwards in terms of research dissemination. The instant a reference book comes out now, it's out of date. For major compendia of many important topics, the "out-of-date" creep is incremental and sometimes even glacial. But there is absolutely no need any longer for reference works to be significantly out of date. Online publishing allows for constant renewal of any reference work. I can think of at least two workable models for this:

  • The wiki reference. Wikis are websites that are collaborative projects. The most open wiki allows anyone in the world to edit any page. More restrictive wikis have permission systems to allow a more narrow range of contributors to edit the pages. A working model is Wikipedia.
  • An online journal/encyclopedia. An online journal could easily accumulate entries for a reference work—most obviously, encyclopedia entries—and subject them to as strict a refereeing process as any in academe, and then publish them in any organization desired (alphabetically, by topics, etc.). With this system, you could even have competing entries for the same term showing how people view the landscape of a field differently, as well as older and newer entries for important terms to show the development of ideas.

The point here is not that I know best how to organize reference works but that there is little reason to have hard-copy reference works that are inaccessible to the majority of the world.

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Posted in Writing and editing on November 1, 2004 1:59 PM |