It’s a book, but not as we know it

A series of 21 online books has been launched as part of an initiative to provide a bridge between the humanities and the sciences. The aim is to create:

a resource for researching and teaching relevant science issues across the humanities

The project is interesting in a number of ways. The range of topics covered is broad, from straightforward science topics such as pharmacology, veterinary science, and human genomics, through interdisciplinary topics like astrobiology, consciousness, and bioethics, to frankly imponderable titles such as “Digitize Me, Visualize Me, Search Me“, “Creative Evolution“, and “Partial Life“. The nature of the books is unusual too – the editor of each book has selected existing open access content and repackaged it as a book, with an introduction and maybe some introductory text for each article or section. Some video and other audio-visual material is also included. And finally the books are intended to be living documents:

These ‘books about life’ will themselves be ‘living’, i.e., they will be open to ongoing collaborative processes of editing, updating and commenting upon, by readers of all levels.

It’s not really clear to me at this stage how this will work. Only registered people can edit the pages and you have to apply for an account by telling the site something about yourself, so there is some level of screening. Since most of the content inside the books (at least those I looked at)  is external to the book itself, being links to PDFs or videos elsewhere on the web, so most of the book cannot be edited.

You can also download the whole of a book as a “frozen” pdf.

It is an interesting idea and I applaud the experiment. Whether the books have enough coherence to have the force of a traditional book remains to be seen. This is always a problem with multi-author works but even more so when the separate components are just stuck together rather than edited together.

I am intrigued to know how scientists will respond to the books. The editors seem to be drawn from the world of humanities so there may be some toes being trodden on and some boundaries being crossed. I think this is a good thing but I know that not everyone shares that view.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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3 Responses to It’s a book, but not as we know it

  1. rpg says:

    Very interesting, Frank. Wish I had time to poke around more!

  2. Frank says:

    Thanks. I found poking around the site does take a bit of time. I was interested to find out where all the authors of the individual pieces came from, and what journals/websites the pieces came from (I did see one from F1000).

    I meant to say that the idea itself is not entirely new. Publishers love to pull together bits and pieces, pretend its something new and charge a high price for it. Even the most eagle-eyed librarian will have been tripped up by one of these at some point. This initiative is different as the books are all for free but, as I said above, they may still come over as a bit of a hodge-podge.

  3. Gary Hall says:

    Hi Frank,

    Thanks for the interest in the project and the supportive nature of your comments.

    Perhaps it would be helpful if I were to provide further clarification relating to some of the points you raise.

    I realise the series is quite large, and you were probably reading through it quite quickly, but titles in the series that some may initially find ‘imponderable’, such as ‘Digitize Me, Visualize me, Search Me’, and ‘Creative Evolution’, are often accompanied by more explanatory subtitles: in those particular cases, ‘Open Science and its Discontents’ and ‘Natural Selection and the Urge to Remix’ respectively. Its also designed to bring a certain humanites’ creativity and playfulness to the topic.

    It is the case that at this stage only registered people can edit the pages, but as with other of our ‘open book’ projects (e.g. Liquid Books:, which currently has over 130 registered participants) this is merely to prevent the site filling up with spam. Any screening is very light. It really amounts to little more than sending us an email to indicate you’re not a bot.

    I’m not sure in what way the separate components of these books ‘are just stuck together rather than edited together’ or can be considered a bit of a ‘hodge podge’, in that, editorially, they’ve been put together in much the same way as a traditional print-on-paper Reader or edited collection would be. Is this a question of binding? Of forms of material support? Of certain ideas relating to what constitutes a finished, complete, unified, ‘coherent’ book? Of boundaries – of what can be said to be inside and what outside a book?

    While some of the content inside the books is hosted externally to the book itself, this does not necessarily mean that content, nor the book itself, cannot be (or has not been) edited. As long as the material inside/outside the book is made available under an appropriate licence that permits its unrestricted (re)use, distribution, reproduction and modification in any medium, and permits it to be modified, remixed, built upon and so on, then it can.

    This is why, for purposes of clarification, each of the Living Books About Life project’s editors has supplied licensing information for all the pieces in their books. This takes the form of an ‘attributions page’ for each book, providing – for each entry – an exact reference, a url address (if available) and information about the terms of the license/copyright agreement under which it has been made available, and any permissions required and obtained.

    Some of the books do come with a pdf version that contains all the content that can be used in this way ‘inside’ them (if that term continues to make sense in this context). We would have liked more of the books to have contained even more material that was available under such a licence that allowed reuse. However, part of the point of the project is to the draw attention of both our editors and their readers to some of implications of not making research available OA (open access) using licences that allow for re-use. For instance, quite a few of our editors were surprised how much of the material they initially wanted to include in their living books was not available on an OA basis, and still less under licenses that allow others to copy and (re)use it.

    As for the question as to whether the books have enough coherence to have the force of a traditional book’, I’m not sure that’s what we set out to achieve. If we had wanted them to have the force of a traditional book, we’d have produced a series of traditional books (as we have done in the past and continue to do with regard to some of the other projects we’re involved with). If anything, we’re interested in placing such accepted, taken-for-granted ideas around the book, the author, the editor, even the ‘work’ into question here. Again, our ‘method’ here comes from our humanities-driven approach to the topic that is informed by a philosophical enquiry into established concepts.

    Consequently, the books in this series are different kinds of ‘book’ (if book is indeed the right word for them), and what we’re interested in is the different kinds of forces these different kinds of book may have. I know what you mean when you write that ‘exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns’, but equally, to continually judge the ‘new’ according to the standards and criteria of the ‘old’ wouldn’t seem to be a particularly ethical or hospitable response on our part – and actually some of us have written fairly traditional, ‘old-style’ books about that:


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