The value of variety

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It is very likely that we will soon see a major change to the appearance of scholarly ebooks, writes Niels Peter Thomas

For the last 10 years, ebooks – be it in PDF, ePub, HTML, or any other format – resembled the best possible copy of a ‘real’ print book in electronic form.

In the future, the leading, ‘original’ format in many cases will be an electronic version. Print renditions will then be imperfect replicas of the ‘real’ ebooks, featuring some, but probably not all, of the functionality of the electronic source. Once authors and publishers have adopted this change, this will provide the opportunity to offer a great variety of different ebooks for different purposes.

At first sight, it is astonishing that currently so many ebooks share a similar set of features and formats, whereas books are used for so many different reasons. There are textbooks which will be read by students in order to learn, and ultimately pass an examination.

There are conference proceedings that resemble a journal-like publication rather than a book. There are monographs, where researchers summarise a new research area. There are handbooks designed for reference purposes, rather than for complete reading from first to last page. The reason why these books are currently very similar to each other is due to the physical constraint of the print version of the book. Print books will always look similar to each other, and up to now electronic copies of them have remained very similar.

Knowing how different types of books are used will ultimately help us understand why it is so difficult to measure the value of an ebook collection. While a journal has a set of more-or-less accepted performance indicators, an ebook collection claiming to contain different book types, does not.

Purely counting citations would penalise textbooks, which are certainly a less-cited genre, but still very valuable for academic libraries. Total usage of the ebooks will not take into account that some books serve as a long-term reference that might not be used every day, but can still play a vital role in the composition of an ebook collection.

For many other books, more holistic performance indicator tools like, which combines all kinds of impact of scholarly communication, might be much more useful. Additionally, there is value in variety itself. Usage patterns show that a lot of books are actually used for different purposes rather than their intended one. For example, lecturers need to prepare the next student assignments, or graduate students need to get an overview over a broad variety of topics.

These objectives can only be properly fulfilled by a balanced mix of different book types. Quality is needed as a criterion in any case, but new measurements for the quality of an ebook collection need to be developed in parallel with the ebooks of the future.

Niels Peter Thomas is chief book strategist at Springer Nature