Are Print Publications an Endangered Species?


A paradigm shift in scientific communication occurred in 1450 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Before then, dissemination of information depended on the painstaking copying of manuscripts and books by monks in monasteries or the sharing of insights within a limited community by means of letters. A natural spinoff from the ability to mass produce written documents was the invention of the journal, the first one entirely devoted to science being the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665. Since then there has been a remarkably steady increase in the number of journals of 3.5% per year that brings us to the 2012 census of approximately 28,100 scholarly, peer-reviewed journals that collectively publish 1.9 million articles a year (The STM Report 2012. The Hague: International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers). As a result, the publishing industry has flourished and billions of trees have been sacrificed to the cause of scientific communication.

The first sign of a decline in the paper flood appeared in 1991 when the initial electronic journal was published. The next paradigm shift in communication was about to take place. Now, nearly all of the greater than 28,000 journals have adopted this new technology and are available via the Internet. However, the move away from print publication has been more gradual with many journals still offering print as well as electronic editions.

There have been several reasons, some now outmoded, for preserving the print technology that is now more than half a millennium old. First is the issue of portability. When digital publications could only be read via computer, there was a significant inconvenience factor. But in 2013 there are few surgeons who do not possess one or more of the many portable digital devices that make the surgical literature readily accessible almost anywhere on the planet. Print’s advantage over digital in portability has clearly been negated by these devices. There has been concern in some quarters that without a paper print anchor there is risk that some scientific writings could be lost forever through a major Internet implosion or to a lesser extent from disappearance of a journal’s archives upon cessation of publication or termination of an electronic subscription. Recently developed digital preservation services such as Portico, LOCKSS and CLOCKSS (controlled lots of copies keep stuff safe) have been enlisted by libraries to ensure the safeguarding in perpetuity of the digitally published material they have purchased. These new approaches have proven highly reliable. Finally, advertisers who contribute a significant fraction of the revenue for many journals have been hesitant in some cases to display their wares online rather than in a print format. This appears to be gradually changing.

Despite these barriers, most of them perceived rather than real, there has been an ever-increasing shift from print to digital. Our medical libraries are leading the way. The Ebling Medical Library at the University of Wisconsin is likely typical. Of the 1,200 journals it receives at a cost of $1.2 million, only 37 are in print format. As a result, "the stacks" that represented quiet and comforting study space when we were students are disappearing with considerable savings for these often financially strapped institutions. Access to the majority of these electronic journals is purchased in packages from the major medical publishing houses such as Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, and Wiley. Two-thirds of Elsevier’s revenue last year was based on digital products ("Global Publishing Leaders 2013: Reed Elsevier Group," Publishers’ Weekly, July 19, 2013. Website accessed 9/13/2013).

At the individual subscription level, a major impetus to keeping print publications afloat is the society owned or sponsored journal. Journals not associated with a society have experienced a marked decline in their print subscriptions over the past decade. As the number of surgeons accessing information from digital mobile devices reaches the tipping point, it is likely that the print edition of many surgical journals, even those affiliated with societies, will eventually disappear.

The logical conclusion from this analysis is that print editions of scientific journals are likely to be either nonexistent or rare within the next decade or two. Digital is less expensive, accessible almost anywhere, and provides increasingly efficient search engines to target one’s reading. Those of you who continue to prefer paper are best advised to purchase a good printer because the printed material you read in the future will likely be produced by you rather than by some distant publishing house.

Dr. Rikkers is Editor in Chief of Surgery News.

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