Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Dead tree scrolls

by PhilipJ on 2 July 2009

I have long wondered who, exactly, still reads the dead tree copies of journals. I don’t know a soul who wanders over to a library to get the latest journal articles. The library is now where you go for only those journal articles that have (annoyingly) not yet found their way into a digital format that is Internet-accessible. I also don’t know many people who have subscriptions to dead tree copies of most journals. I’ll see the odd Science and Nature sitting around the coffee tables in various departments, but I don’t know many who prefer to read their favourite journals that way. Besides, Science and Nature are filled with enough news articles and op-eds that they really are science magazines with a more general appeal. Something like the Journal of the American Chemical Society? Definitely not.

Which is why I was quite happy to hear that the American Chemical Society is gradually moving to an entirely online distribution method. As per Nature News,

In 2010, ACS members will no longer be able to buy print subscriptions of journals, and the publications division will monitor print renewals from institutional subscribers. In general, Susan King [senior vice-president of the ACS’s journals publishing division] foresees a “move beyond print to an electronic-only scientific publishing environment”.

Not only is printing a dead tree version of a journal an incredible waste of money (which is obviously the real reason for the change by the ACS), it’s also an incredible waste of paper. Most journal articles are not interesting to most people. Online browsing of Tables of Contents and only printing out the articles you find interesting is a much better (from every perspective!) way of reading the scientific literature.

Of course, there will be a few dissenters. In this week’s Nature, Francois Diederich argues for the print editions of journals. As member of the German chemical society and a senior editor for Angewandte Chemie, he claims “there is a risk that the quality of these prestigious journals [Angewandte, JACS, etc] could gradually decline to the standard of many of today’s web-only journals.”

I’m having a lot of trouble coming up with a rational reason why this might be the case. How does the application of ink to paper by people and machines unrelated to the actual writing, editing, and production of the articles have anything to do with the quality of the science presented in a journal? In fact, abandoning the inconvenient medium of paper will allow for more informative Materials and Methods sections and (hopefully) a reduction in Supplemental Information. A return to well-described and documented methodology is one of the distinct advantages of moving to paperless scientific publishing.

I suspect the reason Diederich is so opposed to the idea is more his initial claim of convenience: “[printed journals] provide distinct advantages in letting me browse their content (during breakfast at home, for example) and readily take in information, without the lengthy opening of individual web pages, article by article.”

In an age of wireless Internet connections and mobile computing, this is not a compelling argument for the continual waste of both money and trees.



  1. C. Bailey    3089 days ago    #

    I agree with you that no one reads the paper journals anymore. Every now and then when I’m bored I’ll go to the library and page through a paper copy, but really I find reading journal articles to be easier online anyway where most of the citations are linked or easy to find and you can easily look up background information you don’t know on wikipedia or whatever.

    I guess I know a few PIs who like to keep paper copies of journals, but most of the people who read journals are accessing them through the academic institution they are affiliated with’s subscription and it’s not like they can afford to sit at breakfast with a paper copy of JACS and browse with their coffee.


  2. Chris Ing    3088 days ago    #

    It’s inevitable! Color e-ink kindle-like devices will be the finishing move on all things printed.


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