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End of the line for print journals?

Are the days of print journals numbered — and if they are, what will that mean for how we interact with the scientific literature? These questions are asked in Nature Chemistry‘s September Editorial (1, 421; 2009). The Editorial is sparked by The American Chemical Society’s announcement that, with the exception of the Journal of the American Chemical Society and two review journals, “ACS titles publishing primary research will be printed in a landscape fashion that puts two article pages side-by-side on a single physical page. These changes are accompanied by new pricing schemes that will eliminate discounts for hardcopy journals, while offering subscribers incentives to upgrade from print to digital formats.” This is inevitably seen by several observers as a precursor to eliminating the print editions of these journals.

Although, as the Nature Chemistry Editorial notes, there are many advantages to the online journal format, both in terms of the content itself and in terms of the financial and environmental cost of the printed medium. The Editorial concludes: “in all likelihood, it will probably come to pass that as this century grows older, printed journals will be consigned to history. And in some ways, that would be a shame. Printed materials have their own charm and practicality — no batteries required! — and will always have a loyal following. Whereas some individuals may be happy to replace their dusty bookshelves and their contents with a plastic electronic reader of some description, many would shudder at the thought.

Moreover, should chemistry publishing become an online-only endeavour, the concept of ‘issues’ also comes into question. With the ability to dynamically group articles on a website using criteria such as dates or keywords, does journal content need to be collated into bite-sized chunks if print is no longer a consideration? And without issues, what becomes of cover images? These serve to advertise both the journal and people’s work — many conference talks are proudly emblazoned with journal covers, as doubtless are many people’s offices.

Assuming sustainable models, the continued co-existence of print and digital editions of journals (especially for those that publish more than just review and research articles) would satisfy the needs of all readers — but whether this is a realistic goal in the long term remains to be seen.”

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