Books in medicine, out of date and out of touch

Nature Microbiology: “… I know it is a big deal in some fields to publish books and careers get decided by books. But for those of us working in medicine or public health, are books and book chapters worth the effort? Is the juice worth the squeeze?? … Based on my experience of contributing over a dozen book chapters, and serving as an Associate Editor of one textbook, my answer is no. I can give you half a dozen good reasons.”

The author goes onto describe three specific concerns he has with book publishing in medicine:

  • Timeliness, or lack thereof. “A delay of 2 – 5 years might not matter in some fields (e.g. anthropology or history or statistical methods), but it matters in medicine and science!” You don’t say.
  • Affordability. Anyone that’s every purchased a science or healthcare related textbooks of any kind can attest to this. Some of my pharmacy school textbooks came with staggering price tags. Same thing applies to medical literature/journals. The subscription cost of some journals is criminal.
  • Access. No doubt a huge problem. “I also worry that those who really need my book can never get hold of it.” I find that this is also a huge issue with medical literature/journals. Getting ahold of articles isn’t easy. You can always get the information, as long as you’re willing to cough up the dough.

The author is spot on with his assessment. This is especially true in my area of expertise, i.e. pharmacy automation and technology.  I’ve read the so-called pharmacy informatics textbooks. They’re out of date and expensive. I regret purchasing both of them.

I suppose the big question after reading the piece in Nature Microbiology is how to solve the problem. I don’t have an answer. Going completely digital isn’t the solution, at least not with current technology. Hundreds (thousands?) of hours in front of a computer monitor has convinced me of that. It’s like gazing into a flashlight. Headaches and eyes that feel like sandpaper at the end of the day have led me to re-embrace paper. I know, I know, it feels antiquated to me as well. But I haven’t found a technology yet that completely replaces the ease and utility of using pen and paper for some things; reading literature and taking notes, for example.

With that said, there are certain things that publishers can do to speed things up, improve access, and cut cost. The open-source literature movement has taught me that.

Universities should also take a more active role in pushing publishers to do the right thing. It never ceases to amaze me when customers refuse to push back. I see this in hospitals with automation and technology vendors. Hospitals will purchase and continue to use technology that they are unhappy with. Why? Something akin to Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps.

It will be interesting to see what publishers do moving forward. The current system is stuck in time, and as long as the end-user continues to accept the model, it will continue.

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