Earlier this year, University of Michigan condensed-matter physicist Leonard Sander sent out a mass email promoting his new textbook. “I published this book using [the online self-publishing platform] CreateSpace (a subsidiary of Amazon),” he wrote. “One reason for this choice is the out-of-control inflation of textbook prices. The downside of this publishing method is that the marketing offered by a publishing house is not available, hence this email.”

Sander’s choice is not common. The self-publishing route is more typically taken by aspiring novelists looking for a breakthrough or by amateur scientists peddling rejected theories. But for every Fifty Shades of Grey—the bestselling, originally self-published romance novel—there are thousands more self-published books that barely make a dime. And for every professional scientist who experiments with self-publishing, there are several more pseudoscientists who are publishing for validation.

Although most scientists with established or budding reputations continue to opt for traditional publishing,...

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