Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Scientific publishing after paper

Yesterday I submitted a paper to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Like most high profile journals they have strict page limits, and my paper was carefully planned to be just under the limit. I got an email from them today saying that they had recently changed the format in which references are given in the journal, and I would have to use the new, longer, format, and resubmit. I had 65 references, so the longer format made my paper half a page too long, which means I have spent the morning making the paper shorter again.

All this has got me thinking about the future of publishing, as fewer and fewer people read their journals on actual paper. The traditional justification for page limits, and a lot of the other rules journals have, was that it cost the journal money to print the extra pages, or the color, or figures above a certain size. Several journals, including PNAS, have even offered authors the option of going over the page limit or adding colors, but paying the extra printing costs. What happens to these limitation as fewer and fewer subscribers bother with the paper edition, and almost everyone goes straight to the digital version?

We are not near abandoning the paper journal yet. Even journals that start out as internet only, as PLoS did a few years back, often end up printing a paper edition because libraries and some readers (especially the older and more established) really like have a paper journal to thumb through. But this is changing. I, and most researchers my age, read almost everything from a digital copy. Some people print out the individual articles they want to read, others read from a screen. It is rare to see anyone my age or younger reading from a bound print journal, unless of course it is one of those rare journals that isn't available online. It is becoming increasingly common for libraries, to save shelf space and money, to provide access to only the digital copies of the less frequently read journals. There are journals which can only be found online, and I suspect their number will increase rapidly over the next decades. These journals (e.g. JoVE) can be far more multimedia than the old ink on rectangle.

So far, this seems to be having relatively little effect on the page limit. Journal editors want authors to get to the point, even if they don't have to worry about the cost of paper and ink. Journals are increasingly offering the option of accompanying the paper with supplemental online material. Those experimental protocols, that video sequence, the large table and the mathematical appendix can all be posted online, with the permalink listed in the main paper and hyperlinked directly from the digital versions. PNAS allows up to ten such files, and the length of all these add-ons often surpass the article itself, but without busting the page limit.

Annoying as it is to have to go through and find three more lines of text to cut to get down to that page limit, I suppose I should be happy that the page limit will be around long after the page itself has gone the way of the mimeograph. I don't want to have to read as much as all those people would write.

I do think the journals themselves will last, even if only online. Someone has to organize the peer review, and everyone needs to have a limit on the number of places they need to look to find relevant papers. I doubt I will see the day when one can be a successful scientist just by uploading my own work onto my own website and inviting people to read it.

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