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Let’s Make Those Book Chapters Open Too!

Following the launch of ‘Translational Bioinformatics’, a PLOS Computational Biology collection presented as an online book, in December 2012, PLOS Computational Biology Founding Editor-in-Chief Phil Bourne discusses how open access can boost the availability and prominence of book chapters.

As authors, many of us have had less than satisfactory experiences in writing book chapters as part of a themed volume, or textbook that, when published, are expensive, inaccessible and cited and used infrequently through lack of availability [1]. It could even be argued we write them from some sense of obligation and need, but do not put our best science and efforts into them because we know they won’t be read and hence cited. Putting that thought aside, let’s just say that a lot of good science goes underutilized. Some finds its way into journal reviews and journals that specialize in such content, for example the Elsevier Current Opinions series, but much languishes. I, many of the PLOS editors, and the PLOS management have long wanted this situation to change; well now it has.

Phil Bourne

The value of themed hardcover volumes and textbooks was understandable in a purely print era. An era during which we frequented the library more, which is where these volumes resided, being too expensive for individuals to purchase. These volumes make no sense today in a digital, open-access world. We are proud to report that PLOS Computational Biology has taken the first steps to address this nonsense. Translational Bioinformatics, edited by Guest Editor Maricel Kann and Education Editor Fran Lewitter, is the first complete PLOS “book” that can be accessed online as individual chapters or downloaded as a complete volume. An ePub version is now available too. The content is indexed, each chapter has a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) assigned and hence is resolvable (i.e., uniquely findable), and is indexed in PubMed and available as full text from PubMed Central, like all PLOS content.

Translational Bioinformatics can be used as a reference guide or textbook, and includes exercises. After review, the authors have had their hard work rewarded through a PLOS citation and greater accessibility to their work. The book uses the PLOS collection feature to bring the content together into a single entity while retaining the individuality of each article.  While we regard this as an important step forward it does raise some questions.

The first question is who pays? Obviously we are strong proponents of open access, but also the first to admit there must be a business model if open access content is to be persistent. Certainly most of us have never made any money from writing specialized book chapters contributed to a volume, but would we pay a modest amount to have them published open access? This remains an open question at this time. PLOS met the cost of publishing Translational Bioinformatics, but if this approach to book chapters were to take off, someone will have to foot the bill. At this time PLOS are interested in furthering this cause and, as with all front matter within the Education Section of the journal, book chapters are not subject to publishing fees. If the demand becomes too great we will need to revisit this. Support for chapter content would seem an opportunity for a wonderful contribution by an individual philanthropist or foundation in furthering scientific dissemination.

The second question is what quality of review do we require of chapter content? In general terms solicited book chapters do not undergo the level of review found in a research article.  Unless the content is terrible, the editors soliciting the material are hard pressed to reject it having persuaded the authors to write it in the first place. Good editors, as we have here, will provide the level of review found in a research article. Moreover, with greater exposure and article level metrics (ALMs) applied to each chapter, the content will rise or fall on its own merits and the end result will likely be higher quality content than we have traditionally seen from book chapters. With regard to PLOS Computational Biology specifically we regard this book content as front matter in the Education Section and as such it has had significant review. We will be revisiting the issue of review, and indeed all aspects of the scope of our support for chapters, as demand increases.

Image Credit: PLOS

The third question is what do we lose and gain in an online book? Of course there are the obvious issues, now long debated, regarding eBooks versus physical books and there is no need to revisit those issues here. What are worth visiting are the specific issues surrounding a book publication by PLOS, an organization which is currently set up to operate as a journal publisher.  PLOS have been wonderful in making this project happen and paving the way for more through the notion of collections. Collections do present challenges when used to represent a book. For example, the collection has no ISBN or other book-like identifier defining the citation; books have editions whereas there is no notion of versioning in a collection. On the positive side the collection can become a dynamic entity, such that new chapters (with their own journal-like citation) can be added to the collection at any time.

Open questions there might be, but an exciting time nevertheless, with PLOS continuing to push the envelope regarding scholarly communication. Over time we will sort this out, but in the meantime enjoy Translational Bioinformatics, a new innovation in open access publishing.


Acknowledgments: Thanks to Maricel Kann and Fran Lewitter for editing a fine volume. To Editor-in-Chief Ruth Nussinov for useful input and to PLOS staff, Rosemary Dickin, Laura Taylor, Clare Weaver, Theo Bloom and Kristen Ratan for making it happen. This blog post will be published as an Editorial in the February issue of PLOS Computational Biology.

Philip E. Bourne is a professor of pharmacology and Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Industrial Alliances at the University of California San Diego, the co-founder of, and Founding Editor-in-Chief of PLOS Computational Biology.

If you’d like to share your feedback on this post, please add a comment below.

  1. I broadly agree with this article, although in my case one of my chapters is my second most cited article on Google Scholar (but doesn’t appear in RID/WoS, of course). Perhaps a good starting point for many of us would be to post full text of previously published chapters. Not only would this improve their accessibility but might also increase citations. Does anyone have any experience of this and publishers’ attitudes?

  2. John Hancock writes Perhaps a good starting point for many of us would be to post full text of previously published chapters.
    Copyright issues with that proposal. Some of us might make such chapters available on their web sides, but not legit, certainly not anything an organization such as PLoS or ISCB could take on.
    Phil, Maricel & Fran (and those who contributed chapters): great job! Thanks!
    But Phil et al.: why does ISI/WoS not cite this book? Just a matter of time (eventually they will)?

  3. Burkhard is correct about the copyright. In my own case with, for example, the books “Structural Bioinformatics” and “Pharmacy Informatics” this copyright also covers future editions, so even if you are successful you are stuck with restricted licensing going forward.

    Regarding citing, the chapters will be cited in the same way research articles are by WoS. The collection (the book) is a bit more problematic as it does not have an ISSN or even a DOI. We are exploring options surrounding this issue.

  4. I guess the copyright issues with book chapters are in principle the same as for papers, i.e. there might be the potential to publish full text, unformatted versions on web sites without copyright problems. This would depend on publishers’ policies though and I don’t think this has been thought about in the context of book chapters. I agree this is out of scope for PLoS, though.

  5. I have made my living writing college life science textbooks for 30 years. I’m paid. If it all goes open access, I will have near-zero income. I blog for PLOS for free, and I wrote a small version of my human genetics textbook precisely because the cost to the student would be an order of magnitude lower than my full textbook. So I’m sensitive to the high cost of my textbooks, which is completely out of my control. But the open access arguments should recognize that some of us are scientists and professional writers. I work hard. I’d like people to read my work, but writers need to earn a living too. Our words are our creations.

  6. Dear Ricki:

    I am sympathetic and highly appreciative of your contributions to education through the textbooks you have written. It is a noble cause. But just as the price of textbooks is out of your control, prevailing business models and what the author is willing to contribute and what the customer will pay for, is out of mine. Whether what I propose in the title of the editorial happens remains to be seen, but you have highlighted their will be those who lose as well as those who gain in such a transition. I thank you for your perspective.

    Phil Bourne

  7. Dear Phil Bourne,

    Where can I find the answers for the exercises in the book “Translational Bioinformatics”.
    Appreciate your help.


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