Element of truth

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Katie Silvester

What to do if your research paper is too long for an article but not long enough for a monograph? Katie Silvester explains

Academic publishing has traditionally offered just two routes for authors – books or journal articles.

This has resulted in around 90 per cent of scholarly writing being either less than 10,000 words or more than 70,000 words, giving little outlet for peer-reviewed research that is longer than an article, but not long enough for a monograph. It was into this arena that the concept of Cambridge Elements was born in 2019.

Organised into series that are edited by scholars from top research universities, each ‘Element’ is around 40 to 70 pages in length. Late last year we celebrated the publication of our 500th Element (we are now up to 600). We’re not the only academic publisher to offer mid-length publishing as an option for authors, but Elements seem to have found their niche as a hybrid product offering the best features of both books and journals. In other words, they’re not just short books. Each Element has an ISBN, like a book would, but each series has an ISSN number too, in common with journals.

Like journals, we’ve gone for fast turnaround production times – 12 weeks from final acceptance to publication. And a digital-first approach means we publish the online version on Cambridge Core (HTML and downloadable PDF) before the print version is available.

There was initially some internal debate as to whether Elements needed to have a print version at all. The decision was taken to create print-on-demand paperbacks of each Element and we are now starting to offer print-on-demand hardbacks of some Elements too. And yes, it is possible to have a spine on a publication that is only 40 pages long, but the shortest Elements don’t have text on the spines. We’ve been surprised about the level of take-up of the print format of some Elements – around a third of Elements sales were for the print format in the last financial year.

So how do Elements fit in with other trends and innovations in the scholarly communications landscape? Each Element is peer reviewed, using a minimum of two referee reports, and the vast majority go through revisions and resubmission before publication.

We have had significant interest from authors in publishing open access (OA) Elements – with a growing number of published Gold OA Elements and more in the pipeline. We have even commissioned a social science series that will be 100 per cent Gold OA, with some STM series currently exploring this option. Subject-wise, we publish across most subjects, but our most prolific series so far have been in humanities and social sciences, rather than STM subjects. Philosophy, political science and economics have the most Elements published, including some successful cross-over series on the philosophy of science. We are also able to link out to video abstracts, when authors create them.

One of the more innovative aspects of the programme is that we are able to host inline video and audio files in the HTML version of an Element. Creating a good user experience for customers using the print or PDF version of an Element that contains video or audio is another challenge, but, at the very least, they can access the files online. Some Elements even allow readers to run code in the HTML version in conjunction with our partners Code Ocean. We can also host downloadable supplementary materials for authors who want to make additional data or information available for readers.

When the Elements programme launched, Cambridge made the – perhaps surprising – decision to make each newly published Element free to access online for two weeks. This means anyone can view the HTML version or download the PDF.

Do we lose sales as a result? Maybe, but we think the benefits make it worthwhile doing this. As a university press with a remit to disseminate high-quality research, we like to think Elements are playing their part in fulfilling that mission. Plus, most of our sales go to libraries and they need long-term access to Elements. Authors tell us they feel less self-conscious publicising their new Element to their network knowing that people can access it for free initially. The take-up of free downloads has been considerable for many Elements and we frequently see several thousand downloads within the first few days. Usage seems to be higher, generally, for Elements than it does for either books or journals.

While books and journals will continue to satisfy the needs of many academic authors, we think this hybrid model is here to stay. As one of our series editors said in January, delighted at seeing at seeing the first few Elements in her series published: ‘This is publishing for the future!’

Katie Silvester is product manager for Cambridge Elements at Cambridge University Press