“Timely” International Law Publishing

by John Louth

When asked the secret of his success, ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky is said to have responded “I skate where I think the puck will be”. This gets trotted out in a number of management texts as exemplifying the “planning school” of strategy. You can see how it might be applied to book publishers – I ponder what will be the hot topics for research, case law, or masters degree courses and then try to sign up books that will come out at roughly the right time. Believe me, I do try. The problem with this approach in international law publishing is that Harold MacMillan turns out to be more sage than Wayne Gretzky: “events dear boy events” get in the way.

Another problem with aiming to publish on timely subjects is that everyone else does so too. In recent years there were successive waves of proposals on complimentarity and the ICC, international territorial administration, R2P, and private military companies. With each of these topics we only chose one title but they were greatly outnumbered by those published elsewhere. So it is not so much a problem of knowing where the puck will be as it is of avoiding getting crushed in a stampede all converging on the same puck.

Strategy happens at a number of different levels. As editors we do certainly try to publish on timely subjects and proactively commission works which cover perceived gaps in the literature. In addition to simply spotting topics you have to look for deep trends that can change the competitive landscape.

So what deeper trends can we divine? The University of Denver published a survey in which they discovered that 49.2% of titles published by university presses had not been accessed once in the previous five years, putting me in mind of Grey’s line: “full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air”. This has fuelled talk of the demise of the monograph but is really a sign of how material that isn’t online is invisible. Another emerging truth, gleaned from the interviews I mentioned in an earlier post, is that there is no clear distinction between the use scholars make of monographs and of journals in international law (that is, any difference in usage is down to online accessibility rather than the genre). A third is that as academic publishers we compete not so much for buyers but for suppliers, that is authors of great works and societies that own major journals.

As inputs for a strategy these are less pithy than the Gretzky quote, but they add up to something fairly coherent. What is most important to scholarly authors is to be read, cited, and have their work recognized as an authority. Journals already offer a model for how to maximize this as they have been online for over 10 years, so our question is how we can achieve the levels of dissemination and citation for books what we have done for journals? This is an over-riding strategic imperative for academic publishers.

Most people’s first answer is e-books. Terminologically this should only be used to refer to something downloaded locally e.g. to a reader or a computer but not to materials hosted remotely. Applying the term in this strict sense e-books would not offer much more than portability – searching entire collections or other value added functions are not currently available. A different usage has sprung up which refers to “e-book collections”. These are offered by aggregators such as ebrary. They are PDF based, remotely hosted, and replicate a library’s print collection. An alternative model is making books available in publisher-specific databases. OUP launched such a service in 2004 called Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) which now has over 4200 OUP titles from 18 disciplines in it, including 337 in the Law module. This is HTML based and offers extra functionality such as exporting citations and cross-referencing within the site. Neither of these models yet incorporates both books and journals however and they do not yet offer all of the functionality that can be found currently in journals sites.

Getting all scholarly books into searchable online systems is a priority but will only aid discoverability of material your library has paid for. However scholars want to know everything that’s out there, regardless of whether their library has already got it. They often use general Google or Google Scholar as their first search. This means that all scholarly books will need to be included in Google Books and/or have abstracts for each chapter freely available (as with OSO) if they are to be picked up on these more general searches.

Once books are more easily accessible in this way, another development from the journals field which could be applied to sales of online books is the emergence of consortia sales. This is where journals (usually in subject groupings or even a publisher’s entire collection) are sold at a deep discount to a network of libraries, usually covering an entire country. The idea is that the value of each sale to each institution is low but there are so many institutions that overall income to the publisher is increased. It means that even sub-disciplinary journals within international law are reaching over 2500 institutions with everyone at those institutions enjoying electronic access.

Since a number of journals innovations originate with science publishing we can look to science journals for other possible future scenarios. One is open access publishing where the author pays for the publication of material but it is free to air. This has some obvious problems for international law in that research is not necessarily funded in the same way as in science but it is already an option on an article by article basis in journals publishing, and we may one day evolve a business model for open access books. Another innovation is the citation index, where a journal is given an impact factor indicating how frequently its content is cited. Currently this is limited to sciences and some social sciences such as economics. Due to these restrictions only one of our international law journals, the Journal of International Economic Law is included and has had a (steadily improving) impact factor since 2006. Impact factors face a lot of criticism and indeed our recent research interviews revealed near universal derision for any system of journals rankings. Nevertheless there have been recent attempts to get a large group of international law journals into a citation indexing system so it could happen sooner than we think. As with several other matters I would be most interested to read about OJ readers’ experiences finding and using online books, and your feelings about open access and impact factors/journals ranking systems.

One of Kevin’s original suggestions when he invited me to guest blog was what subjects were hot. I have tried to show in this posting how we need to keep an eye on more seismic changes. But if you want a short answer, I would say law of the sea.


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