As a schoolboy in England in the 1950s and ‘60s, I was first introduced to reference publishing by Kaye and Loby’s Tables. Here you could find all the “right” answers to experimental demonstrations in physics and chemistry, such as the viscosity of various mineral oils and Young’s modulus for steel, which then seemed rather remote from everyday life. And we used four-figure logarithm tables all the time. What a gold mine they were for publishers: in public examinations completely fresh copies had to be issued to every pupil.

Reference books are indispensable to the working scientist. They are also the most demanding publications to write, and the hardest for publishers to commission. In 1972, when I was at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, I put together the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy with a dozen active researchers.

This was my introduction to the hazards of reference publishing. After I had...

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