A future without print?

Posted on December 11, 2013   by Leighton Chipperfield

When did you last read a print journal? For many, online became king long ago. No need to wait for the latest issue to arrive on your doormat or at your research library. No more frustration when you can’t get to the ‘stack’. And accepted articles available weeks – sometimes months – before they appear in print.

There can be few journals today where the print version is used more than its online sibling. The benefits of the latter are obvious: readers can create a personalised table of contents, sign-up for article alerts, and go right to the content that interests them. This has led some publishers to question whether ‘issues’ (aside from themed issues, perhaps) have any meaning in a digital world. Our new, open access title JMM Case Reports follows a continuous publication model so that content is published as soon as it is ready.

Online readers can already interact with the content at some level, such as downloading references or figures. Publishers are constantly seeking to add further value through investment in ‘smart tagging’; additional multimedia and supplemental content; and developing interfaces with social media.

At the Society, the steady march of readers from print to online has been reflected in our journals’ e-usage growth. I am constantly impressed by the global reach of our journals, and the high value placed on our archive. This archive has benefited from the reference linking and search functionality that is only possible in an online world.

For most librarians, it is a no-brainer. Online journals offer measurable value: usage reports inform evidence-based decision making when it comes to renewing subscriptions. And it saves a whole load of space.

So many subscribers have left print behind already – yet most publishers, including the Society, still offer a print version. Why?

For us, the answer is straightforward. For now at least, the costs associated with the print version are still outweighed by the subscription revenue generated. That is, the print version contributes to the publishing surplus that is returned to the Society to re-invest in microbiology and microbiologists. But I expect the Society to reach a tipping point in the coming years where print loses us money – and then we will have a decision to make. That decision won’t just be a financial one. Many countries still have a preference for print, particularly where challenges with telecommunications remain. As a charitable organisation, we have much to contemplate here.

Scientific publishing is at a unique juncture, where content can be accessed in print, online, and increasingly via myriad mobile devices. Like the music and newspaper industry, this cannot continue indefinitely.

Yet two things give me pause for thought. First, that for most journals, PDF downloads of articles far outstrip HTML views. This tells us that, however a reader might initially access an article, they will often still make a physical copy. Second, as a published author, seeing my article in a printed issue gave me a far greater sense of accomplishment than reading the same article on-screen.

Perhaps there is life in the old dog yet.