If you were one of the many people busy tucking into roast turkey and opening presents on 25 December, you might be forgiven for missing the tweet from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences early on Christmas morning confirming that it was ceasing publication of its weekly print edition after 103 years with immediate effect.
“The end of print is part of a larger effort to make the submission and publication process easier for authors,” read the post from the official scientific journal of the US National Academy of Sciences, confirming an announcement first made in September.
Authors will indeed get greater flexibility: PNAS articles have historically had a six-page limit, but from July 2019 writers will be allowed to go up to 12 pages, for an additional fee. But with academics increasingly accessing research online, and with print media sales in decline across other sectors including newspapers and academic books, many expect more major journals to follow suit.
Diane Sullenberger, PNAS’ executive editor, admitted that rising printing costs had been a big part of the decision to move online-only. With PNAS publishing about 3,200 articles per year, “eliminating print and its associated costs allows us to move toward flexible article length and away from strict page limits”, she said.
“At the same time, our number of print subscriptions [has] dropped, increasing the unit cost [of printing] even further. For journals such as ours whose readers no longer read the print edition widely or are willing to pay the increasing costs of producing it, the decision to cease print makes sense,” she said.
In response to PNAS’ announcement, several academics argued that, if cost savings were to be made, academics should benefit too.
“I am not surprised they have stopped printing, I don’t know anyone who reads print journals any more,” said José Jiménez-Gómez, a laboratory group leader at the Institut Jean-Pierre Bourgin in Versailles. “But if they are doing this they should lower publication fees.”
Randy Schekman, now editor of the online journal eLife, said that PNAS had been “pointing in this direction” back in the early 2000s, when he served as its editor-in-chief. But “doing away with the print version doesn’t save that much for most journals run by scientific and professional societies”, he warned. “There is perhaps some saving in respect to the cost of colour print on paper [but] a typical print run is not large enough to constitute a major expense,” said Professor Schekman, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
The cost of glossy magazine journals such as Nature and Science was more substantial, Professor Schekman noted, “so if they were to go this way that would be a more significant change”.
Another reason for the move away from print cited by Ms Sullenberger was “to leverage online publishing”, suggesting the move may be a tactical one, giving PNAS a head start in building its digital reputation ahead of competitors.
But Nancy Gough, owner of the scientific publishing consultancy BioSerendipity and former editor of Science Signaling, said that she was “surprised it has taken [PNAS] this long”.
While PNAS “is a huge tome, one of the largest in terms of pages and publications, which makes the move significant”, Dr Gough said, it is by no means the first print journal to go online-only. Science Signaling was one of the first biology journals to drop its print edition in 2008, which Dr Gough said was “challenging, but researchers weren’t put off submitting to us, they cared much more about impact factor”. Titles that followed suit included, in 2012, the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
“The effects of the digital transition will vary from field to field,” Dr Gough said. “From a basic research perspective, I think we’re going to find a lot of journals that will not continue in print, unless they have news content.
“Magazines such as Nature and Science…are a different offering altogether; you pick them up for entertainment purposes in your downtime.”
Dr Gough acknowledged that some of the advantages of print could be lost. “Flipping through print journals allows you to come across work you would never otherwise read, whereas searching for a paper online is very specific,” she said. With this in mind, download and citation rates may become more polarised and papers reporting incremental developments that don’t make headlines could struggle to get a readership.
“There will be greater responsibility on researchers to promote their work through social media, and that’s where we will see a generational divide I think,” Dr Gough added. “It’s sad that print is closing, but we’re going to see a big switch in how the system works.”