Journal Archive > 2002 > March

Web scholarship

Psychology cyberbook breaks new ground in academic publishing

In the often-conventional world of academic publishing, Robert Cook had an unconventional proposal.

Cook, a professor of psychology whose research specialty is avian visual cognition, envisioned a collection of essays that would not only describe his work and that of others in the field, but also would literally let readers view his research and interact with the material. He wanted a marriage of science and technology—a scholarly cyberbook available for free over the Internet.

Psychologist Robert Cook is breaking new ground with the publication of his e-book. © Mark Morelli

Unable to attract interest from traditional publishers, who didn't see a way to make a profit from a free e-book, Cook eventually saw his project take wing with funding from Tufts. Avian Visual Cognition: is a collection of essays edited by Cook that was published last fall.

The book has received wide visibility on the Net and has convinced Cook that cyberbooks have a future in academia.

"I realized a few years ago how powerful the web was as a means of communication," Cook said. "The idea occurred to me that one could literally take [a scholarly work], put in on the web and add value, using interactive tools, links, video and color. You could really enhance the presentation, better present this information and get it to more people."

Broader distribution
In the first four months after the book's release, it received "hits" from 9,000 different computers in 75 countries, Cook said, "including places where I wasn't even aware that there was an interest in avian cognition research."

"That's broader distribution than any scholarly book I've ever contributed to," he said.

Avian Visual Cognition was published in conjunction with the Comparative Cognition Society, which peer-reviewed the manuscript. That, Cook points out, is key in establishing and maintaining the credibility of this e-book and others that may follow.

Material presented electronically must adhere to the same peer-reviewed standards as other scholarly publications, Cook said. Sticking to established protocols should also address any qualms universities may have about evaluating electronic books during tenure review.

"From the point of view of universities, in the end, the key thing with a scientific publication is peer review, and as long as that process is in place, it's not critical who owns the printing press," Cook said. Still, electronic publishing is in its infancy, and its effect on the tenure process remains to be seen.

A scholarly work
In addition, Cook said that maintaining the stability of the published work—that is, not altering the content on the book's web site—is vital to its function as an academic resource.

"I plan to keep it as it is. I would like it to be considered a scholarly work, and I think to maintain the integrity, it must remain stable for the historical record," he said. "Not to say that material couldn't be added, maybe more chapters at a later date, or comments, or minor changes to correct typographical or grammatical errors, if they come to my attention, but it has to stay theoretically and empirically consistent to be valuable as an academic resource.

"If it stays stable, it's the equivalent of a book. If it's changing, it's a web site," he said.

For many in the sciences, this is uncharted territory. "As far as I know in my field of animal cognition or psychology, there is nothing quite comparable," Cook said. "There may be in other scientific areas, but not that I'm aware of."

A question of money
The main obstacle to widespread publication of scholarly material online is financial, Cook said.

"The key source of the problem is that book publishers are not interested," he said. "When I talked to publishers initially, they all asked how they were going to make money, but making money was never my objective. My aim was to communicate this information as broadly as possible."

Cook finally got the project under way with assistance from Provost and Senior Vice President Sol Gittleman and from a National Science Foundation research grant.

Access to technology is also an issue for many scholars. Using the Internet and being able to design and format an e-book are two different things.

Because he has considerable technical expertise on the Internet, Cook, with the assistance of a number of students, was able to handle the technical aspects of his project in-house. "But not everybody is in the position to publish their own e-book at the moment," he said.

And, he said, there have been a few drawbacks to becoming his own publisher. "The biggest drawback is that book publishers do offer services that are difficult to replace by a single individual, for example, public relations or proofreaders. As the editor, I have played all those roles. Book publishers have more resources than a small operation like this.

"On the other hand, it has given me lots of flexibility to pursue my vision," Cook said.

You can watch a pigeon "solve" a puzzle in the new psychology e-book. © Robert Cook

'Visual flash'
Cook said he tried to design the book with "enough visual flash to be interesting" but enough "elegance" to attract academics. "Scientists are conservative," he says. He expects that most readers will not tackle the entire volume on the screen.

"The screen is the ideal way to deliver information, but it is not always the best way to read information," he said. "Most people will print out what they want to read for ease and visibility of text.

"But the advantages of the web is that is can deliver content that you can't do in a book—sound, video, interactive demonstrations, all the color you could possibly want."

In his contribution to the book, for example, Cook includes a link to a video clip that shows a pigeon in the lab actively taking part in an experiment in which the pigeon "solves" a puzzle by tapping on a computerized touch screen.

"It's all value-added information that you couldn't have on the printed page," Cook said.

Not only does an online book make information easier for other researchers to obtain, but it's easier—and less expensive—for students to use. That's particularly helpful for instructors who want to assign one or two chapters from a book but don't expect students to buy an expensive textbook to do so.

In fact, Cook expects a jump in visits to the book's web page when the academic year begins next fall, and professors begin to incorporate the book into their reading lists.

Looking beyond, electronic publishing has the potential to shift the "guardianship of scholarship" from those interested in making money—the publishers—to those interested in distributing information as broadly as possible—the authors and researchers, Cook said.

"This is definitely something that book publishers should be wary of," he says.