Column Editor: Myer Kutz (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.)
I’ve been a PROSE Awards judge for well over a decade. (The awards program was run by the Scholarly and Professional Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), but now it’s administered by AAP headquarters staff. You can read about the program at proseawards.com. The categories I’m responsible for are: astronomy and cosmology; chemistry and physics; earth science; environmental science; mathematics; multi-volume science and mathematics reference works; single-volume science and mathematics reference works; popular science and mathematics; textbooks in physical sciences and mathematics. Most of the entries publishers submit to the awards program are books. They also submit journals and electronic-based products.
I access journals and electronic-based products online. The books arrive in cartons delivered throughout November to the doorstep of my home near Albany, NY. This past fall, while I had two particularly interesting journals to evaluate, an unprecedented event, if memory serves, there was a drop-off from the past several years in the number of printed books I received.
Now I did receive a full complement of popular science and mathematics books, many but not all of them from university presses. Apparently, scholarly publishers continue to see robust markets for these books, most of which consider serious subjects and some of which can be quirky while others are very personal. I did receive the usual complement of upper-level textbooks. Some of these books, as in years past, resulted from many years of classroom testing and were further improved by extensive recommendations from colleagues.
Where I sensed a marked drop-off was in the multi- and single-volume references dealing with scientific topics. Of course, a single year’s worth of entries doesn’t necessarily signify a trend. I’ll have to see the numbers of entries for several years before I would hazard an opinion about the possibility of a trend. I don’t have any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that major publishers may have determined recently that there are diminishing markets for very large-scale scientific reference works. What I can say, based on the quality and sheer size of the several dozen other high-level scientific and mathematics monographs, textbooks and reference books that I received, is that a possible reason for the fall-off is not that publishers aren’t willing to devote resources in terms of time, personnel, and money to developing and distributing expensive titles. Trim sizes were large and illustrations were extensive in numerous cases. Color illustrations, expected in undergraduate textbooks, also turned up in monographs and reference works.
I should point out that, for me personally, one benefit from not receiving as many cartons of multi-volume sets this year as in the past is that I didn’t have to spend as much time in my cold garage (and Albany winters can be really cold) perusing the sets in their heavy cartons that I left out there rather than dragging them through the house to my office, which was already too crowded with four dozen or more books submitted to the PROSE competition.
Among the entries I received, there was a sizable number of titles that dealt with topics of major significance to environmental health. For example, there were titles that addressed plastics contamination in aquatic environments, global flood hazards, downscaling wide-ranging environmental impacts to small areas, and working in facilities built on the permafrost. The winning entry among all the physical science and mathematics categories was an inventive new journal, called GeoHealth, which deals with the intersections of environmental and health sciences. It’s published by the American Geophysical Union in conjunction with Wiley. The founding editor was Rita R. Cowell, the eminent environmental microbiologist and scientific administrator, who has written or co-authored 19 books and more than 800 scientific papers. Much of her work has focused on such water-borne diseases as cholera. She was the first female director of the National Science Foundation (1996-2004) and in 2008 founded CosmosID, a bioinformatics company that makes equipment that identifies microbial activity in ecosystems.
The PROSE Awards program’s ultimate prize (the R.R. Hawkins Award, named after the Chief of Science and Technology Division of the New York Public Library from 1942 to 1957) went to an equally timely entry, an Oxford University Press book entitled Cyberwar, How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President – What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know, written by the well-known scholar and author Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The best evaluation of the book and the issues it deals with can be found in Jane Mayer’s article in The New Yorker issue of October 1, 2018. AAP’s February press release following the PROSE Awards luncheon, which takes place at PSP’s annual conference, said, “the book is scholarship at its finest, a narrative page-turner that could not be of greater consequence.”
Of additional interest is Porter Anderson’s February interview with Jamieson, which you can find on his Publishing Perspectives website. It’s well worth reading. The interview focuses on Jamieson’s “Library of Alexandria moment,” which is “a warning to publishers that their essential content could go up in cyber-flames.” Anderson has numerous alarming quotes in his interview. “How are we protecting the integrity of the publishing enterprise — which is now digital — from the kinds of intrusions that would alter the meaning of texts that are secured right now inside … digital libraries?” Jamieson asks at one point. For example, could someone wipe out the digital files of books that have gone out of print? “How are we going to protect against people who would … alter the substance of information inside the scholarly publishing world?” she asks at another point in the interview. For example, could a religious zealot wipe out the digital files of books that discuss a religion that she disparages? Could some government actor wipe out or alter all references to any dastardly acts perpetrated by his government? The answer to Jamieson’s concerns, which ought to be taken seriously, in my view, is likely to be very expensive. Where will the money come from?