Twelve volumes; 2,200 articles; 1,800 contributors from 58 countries, and an editorial board of 155 international scholars. Alex Michalos rattled off the list of numbers that went into creating The Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research (Springer) with obvious pride and a touch of awe. The 78-year-old professor emeritus edited the resource, which came out this spring. He considers it his legacy project, and with good reason.
“My original plan was to make a very comprehensive collection that would be representative of the state of the quality-of-life research over the last 50 years or so,” said Dr. Michalos, an emeritus professor in political science and former chancellor at the University of Northern British Columbia.
At the outset, he figured if he put in about 10 hours a week he would complete the project in five or six years. “That didn’t last and I was wildly off the mark,” he said. In the end, it took six “active years” with Dr. Michalos clocking more than 35 hours a week in the project’s last three years or so.
He can laugh now about underestimating the labour the encyclopedia would require, but there were times throughout the project that he seriously wondered if he had taken on too much. After all, he had set out to publish a 10-volume resource and wound up with a 12-volume tome – no mean feat.
“The encyclopedia is not the longest [project] in terms of years it took, but is by far the most complicated in terms of the organization overall,” he said. One of the most difficult aspects of the project was ensuring the book accurately reflected what’s going on in the field. “I started with a keyword search of 30 or 40 central journals and came up with just over 17,000 keywords,” he said. He enlisted his editorial board to go over a few hundred terms each from the list to help whittle the list down to under 3,000. And at one point, it became clear he’d even have to rethink the encyclopedia’s format.
“I kept thinking in terms of 10 volumes and at one point someone [at Springer] asked me, ‘When is the last time you looked at a hard-copy encyclopedia?’” he said. E-books and digital articles have come to dominate the scholarly landscape, so Dr. Michalos had to begin thinking in terms of interactive footnotes and citations. “We link to about 200 other reference works that Springer produces,” he said, and countless other scholarly articles and titles from other sources. “When someone connects to this resource they link to literally thousands of other resources.”
Another bonus to publishing digitally: free distribution of the e-resource, priced at $7,050 on Springer’s website, to university libraries in a number of developing countries, like Swaziland, Namibia and Afghanistan – a stipulation Dr. Michalos wrote into his publishing contract.
It was important to Dr. Michalos that comprehensive tools such as this be made available to developing countries. “They need data resources and information, reliable information, to begin the process of public policy making and interventions to create change on the ground,” he explained.
Dr. Michalos has contributed to many of the discipline’s seminal texts, including as founding editor of the journal Social Indicators Research, a position he gave up this past December after 40 years. The one resource he had yet to develop, that anyone in the field had yet to develop, was an encyclopedia. He decided it would be a great learning experience an important contribution that would allow “people working in the next 50 years not to have to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “And I wanted to be somewhat in the driver’s seat in giving the field some direction once I’m gone.”
“When I discovered this field where people would apply statistical analysis to measuring the quality of the world that they’re living in and the life that they’re leading, I thought, ‘Here’s a field that puts it all together, my two great interests.’” It may be idealistic, he said, but it’s the potential for real, positive, life-altering change that intrigued him in the first place and it’s what makes him want to see it keep going strong even as he quietly steps back from his own research. “That’s how I got hooked,” he said. “Maybe it will hook someone else.”