Indelible Ink


Considerable time and effort goes into producing print copies of journals, both here at Nature and at other scientific publishers. It’s something that pains my web publishing heart. Is print really necessary? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? If they do, are those benefits to consumers… or really just to us publishers? If we dropped print altogether could the savings fund a free bar at the next NPG xmas party?

Certainly print still has the edge over online in some situations. I’m a recent convert to the print version of Nature journal – it’s far easier to browse bitty front half content (research highlights, news and views, book reviews) by flicking through pages than it is to navigate It’s also more aesthetically pleasing – the layout is nicer.

Nature and other magazine style journals are the exception to the rule though. I also read OUP’s Nucleic Acids Research (have to keep a hand in…) but I’ve never felt the need to pick up a paper copy to browse in the bathtub. When a journal is all papers then a simple eTOC conveys everything you need to know, conveniently and efficiently.

Most consumers seem to agree. Last year a study in the excitingly named Serials Review by Chandra Prabha noted that the percentage of journals held by libraries that were only available online had jumped from 5% in 2002 to 37% in 2007. For every one researcher reading a paper on paper there are hundreds reading it online and the gap is even more pronounced if you only look at students and young postdocs.

When publishers talk about the article of the future – interactive figures, semantic markup, replicable workflows, aggregated conversation – they’re talking electronic versions. Until journals come out on e-paper improvements are going to be restricted to articles online. Print is already the poor cousin when it comes to functionality: it’s far easier to collect a citation, follow a reference, quote or use supplemental data from an article that you’re reading online.

Costs are higher when you’re maintaining print versions. Though print and online have the same workflow up to a point printing, binding, storing and mailing out journals isn’t cheap (economically or environmentally). Nor is cataloging, shelving or building huge new extensions to your library to house your growing back catalog.

So given the costs, limitations and lack of consumer enthusiasm, why bother?

a brief disclaimer: I’m talking about scientific publishing in general, not Nature in particular.

Tax: is one slightly disappointing reason. In much of Europe VAT is higher on electronic items than on printed ones, so to remain competitive publishers simply bundle ‘free online access’ with a print subscription. In the Netherlands VAT is 6% on print and 19% on electronic items – it’s potentially cheaper to buy a print subscription and then bin copies of the journal as they arrive (saving on shelving costs) than to buy online access alone.

Elsevier has noticed a migration to 100% e-only in countries like Sweden (where there are VAT exemptions or reimbursements) and a more gradual change in countries like the UK (where only particular libraries can reclaim some VAT).

(from Elsevier Library Connect)

Fear of losing your subscriber base: the vast majority of a journal’s audience is happy working online but what about the five percent of elderly, persnickety professors who eschew PCs and rely on paper copies? What if they’re the same persnickety professors who sit on the board of the society whose journals you publish? What if you’ve already annoyed that society by suggesting that from now on their members won’t get a nicely bound hard copy of the latest issue, simply an eTOC with links to ScienceDirect or some other mega-repository which has swallowed their brand and identity?

Prestige: Given the choice between being published on paper (hang the journal cover on your office wall, send your mum a reprint) or online only who goes for the latter? Journals that are printed also imply a broad readership. Ad buyers prefer paper too – despite (or perhaps because of? 😉 ) the better measure of ROI you get from being able to track views and clickthroughs. Authors and advertisers may be a relatively small percentage of consumers… but they have a relatively large effect on a journal’s bottom line.

Supposedly a solution to the first issue is forthcoming. The others I’m not so sure about.

Some further reading (from which most of this this post was cribbed):

The E-Only Tipping Point for Journals

Richard Johnson and Judy Luther


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