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On the future of medical textbooks

By John Firth

Medical textbooks are often spoken of as dinosaurs – they may have dominated the medical world years ago, but things have moved on, and they’re now out-of-date and heading towards extinction with the Dodo.  While there is some truth in this, it’s not the whole truth, and it’s my feeling that medical textbooks will continue to play a big part in the future of medical publishing, albeit in a different form.

The creation of a good medical textbook involves assembling a group of authoritative writers, and producing with them a comprehensive work that is as up-to-date as possible at the time of writing. Of course, this is where the problem lies. The inevitable lengthy gestation of such books,  which can be massive (over 5,000 pages in length), coupled with the inclusion of particularly fast-moving fields of medicine, means that the work can be, in places, out-of-date on the day of publication, and becomes increasingly out-dated as time and medical understanding progresses. Lifting such a weighty beast is a separate issue entirely!

The answer to both problems lies in online access to textbooks. Increasingly, medical practitioners, researchers, and students are turning to online medical works to further their medical knowledge, understanding, and to pass their exams. With the increased use of tablet computers and internet enabled phones on hospital wards, and the prevalence of computers in libraries and students’ bedrooms, this trend is only going to increase. A recent entry on the American Journal of Medicine Blog adds some weight to this argument.

With textbooks being placed and read online, editors and authors are able to continuously review and revise their content, providing readers with the most up-to-date information available. Of course, this still takes time – contributors need to research their area, submit their additions for review, revise their writings, and then have their work prepared for publication – but the turn-around time compared to a full print publication of a large textbook, or even a mere supplement, is much faster. Another added bonus comes, if functionality allows, with the existence of previous incarnations of chapters sat alongside, or behind, their updated brothers, allowing users to see how the world of medical science has developed. As for the weight of an online textbook, the iPad 2 comes in at 600g. A bag of sugar compared to a bull elephant?

Dr John Firth, along with Professor David Warrell and Dr Timothy Cox, is one of the editors of the Oxford Textbook of Medicine. OTM Online is being updated this week.

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Recent Comments

  1. Aidan O'Donnell

    I love medical books (all books!), and my shelves are groaning under the weight of the ones I have amassed throughout my lifetime. This blog highlights something I have recently been thinking about, which is the inevitable changeover from paper to screen.

    For editors and publishers of medical books, it is no longer a question of _if_ the electronic edition outsells the paper edition, but _when_. Mobile computing devices are now enormously powerful (recently a competitor won a grandmaster chess tournament with a chess program running on his mobile phone). The electronic editions of medical textbooks offer extraordinary portability (you can carry not just one book but dozens in your portable device; the equivalent of hundreds of kilograms, or metres of shelving). And in addition your electronic library can be searched and queried in seconds, and has the potential to include video and audio content as well as just text.

    On the other hand, the process described above, of assembling a group of experts and getting them to write their chapters, remains a vital process. Though there are many sources of information on the internet, the critical mass of expertise in a well put-together textbook is still a first-class source of knowledge. Further, the process of writing is valuable in an academic sense (if not always a financial one) for the contributors. Medicine needs bastions against the onslaught of junk science, quack healers and big pharma, all out to twist the facts to suit their various agendas.

    I do envisage a future when medical textbooks are no longer printed on paper, and no longer go through editions where the entire text is updated every few years. Instead, the textbook will be continually updated in electronic form, much as my laptop’s operating system updates itself every few days.

    But something will definitely be lost, not least the olfactory, tactile and cognitive pleasures of sitting in a medical library surrounded by real, paper books, the preserved fruits of scholarship and orderliness.


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