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Farewell to Hard Copies

Someone’s leaked an American Chemical Society memo to Nature, in which the VP of the publishing division talks about how the printed journals are going to be phased out. The ACS isn’t confirming anything, but they’re not denying it, either: it looks like the days of paper copies of their journals are numbered.
I’ve been expecting that. I used to have a print subscription to the Journal of Organic Chemistry back in the early and mid-1990s, and I took them with me in a move in 1997. I interrupted my subscription around that time, and never got around to renewing it. By then, online access was starting to become a more convenient way to locate old articles, and as the ACS improved their archives the advantages became overwhelming. Then I got used to following the new issues online, either by going to the journal’s site or by RSS feeds.
So my boxed collection of several years of JOC sat in my basement, in bales of cobalt-blue-covered bricks of paper. I’d planned on moving them into my office, but didn’t got around to it at first. That delay allowed the situation to turn into “Hmmm. . .not sure that I see the need to have these taking up the shelf space”, which turned into “You know, I need to recycle these things”. And gradually, that’s just what I did.
When I joined the Wonder Drug Factory in ’97, new print journals were still put out on a table in the library as they came in, for people to sit down and read. A few years later, the table was gone, and whole idea was sounding downright Victorian in retrospect. The company where I work now doesn’t even have much of a real, printed-on-paper chemistry library at all. It’s been years I last picked up a hard copy of any chemistry journal – when I see the cover illustration of a journal on its web site, I keep thinking of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air. OK, I’m perhaps a bit weird in that respect. But you get the idea.
Printed copies of journals have some advantages. I used to read JOC in the laundromat when I lived in New Jersey, which kept the casual chit-chat down to a stark minimum, I can tell you. I think that the browsing effect of looking through a hard copy is only partially emulated by scrolling through an RSS feed – the old way, you could see all the details inside a paper as you flipped through, and often learned something. So in a way, I’ll miss the bound versions. But then I think of those boxes in my basement, and I realize that there’s really no other way.

32 comments on “Farewell to Hard Copies”

  1. BigBob says:

    When I saw the announcement on the ACS society a couple of weeks back that they were moving to a condensed format I suspected that it was only a matter of time before they did away with printed versions all together.
    I remember about 5 years ago when they cleared the chemistry library at the University I was working at to make way for a coffee room. A skip outside was piled high with bound copies of journals, dating back to 1900, how many pioneers had thumbed through those very copies?

  2. We really needed a posting on this for “chemists of a certain age”. I understand the efficiency gain with the new electronic journals but grieve for the younger chemsts. They will never really know the meaning of putting a day in the library doing literature work, the wonder of the Chemical Abstracts Collective Editions. The friday afternoons spent in the sanctuary of the current periodicals reading room. But most of all, the sublime serendipity of reading the papers before or after the article you intended to read simply because of their proximity and “discovering” new methods like multi-nuclear NMR defore they were common.
    That, in fact, might make an interesting thread: important papers you read simply because they were close to a paper you intended to read.

  3. CMCguy says:

    #1 Bigbob states “how many pioneers had thumbed through those very copies?” Will we be losing some value by going all e-journals in how people access “serendipity”? I know I often came across “interesting” articles when either looking for a specific citation or simply browsing through a bound copy in the library. Although such finds were usually not related to the immediate efforts they did occasionally provide ideas or starting points that were beneficial to other (future) problems or if nothing else got my mind working. I would guess there are comparable routes today to this type of accidental inputs however not sure how researchers have replaced the connection to the hard bound archives of knowledge.

  4. BioBrit says:

    So here’s a thought, and perhaps the ACS has thought the same. Once hard copies are done away with, what is the actual point of having editions in the electronic realm? The concept of volume and page # is somewhat redundant, and the early view, referenced via a DOI#, could become the only view.
    Could be useful in fact, to make it part of the publishing guide, that all references (where possible at least) are reference through live, hyperlinked, DOI#s.
    Could even help move towards an interesting future where the regimented concept of journals is somewhat abandoned and articles are handled in much more of a social media type environment. Could still be peer reviewed, but much more friendly towards open comments and thought-cloud type linking to other relevant literature.

  5. RTW says:

    Well – I am not at all pleased by this situation. I did get a letter from ACS about this last week. Seems printed copies will not be available to individual subscribers starting in 2010. I am major league ticked off. I can’t now own a copy of the journals I have been subscribing to for 31 years! Sure I can have online access to these journals so long as I remain a member of ACS. Not at much of a reduced rate at that. Need a high speed internet connection to really scan one on line. But I don’t need to be a member to go back and read articles out of my old printed version. Another thing that ticks me off.
    I am old school and I like to scan lots of journals because even unrelated chemistry can result in new ideas being generated. This is the one problem with database STN, CAS, Scifinder and other search applications. They can’t take you on wonderful and interesting creative tangents.
    I am not suprised, at the decline of creativity in drug research. Despite drug discovery and synthiesis being more art than science sometimes, the artistry and creativity are becoming very lost. Since I no longer have access to the vast majority of journal I use to scan when I was a member of an organization that will now remain nameless, my three personal journal subscritions, and C&EN are my only door into that world now, and it appears will soon be further limited to my dismay. Scanning a journal on line is a pain in the … The new double page format is also useless. You have to now handle a journal like a flip book! Bhah!

  6. T says:

    BigBob – You have made your point absolutely perfectly. Seeing a skip filled with old journals must have been a horribly sad sight indeed

  7. Chemjobber says:

    Re: journal serendipity.
    While not the same, I’ve always liked looking through other people’s printouts. It’s kinda fun and you’ll never know what you’ll learn.

  8. Petros says:

    Derek’s post rings a chord and I foind his choice of quotation highly apt since I used to work in the building where Thomas Gray lived when he wrote his Elegy about the local churchyard. (The laboratories were a 20th century addition to the original house)
    I too remember the delights of scanning each paper issue of Tet Lett as a young chemist becuase it could prompt ideas and highlight synthetic methods that might be useful. as a weekly publication of short papers this came round more frequently than JOC with its meatier papers.
    The arrival of a new Collective index of CA was a delight, reducing the need to plow through 10 sets of indexes covering the past 5 years, although the advent of electronic forms was a boon. another delight of having access to all of CA was to find how detailed the early abstracts were, and locating the abstract could lead to the spotting of something else of interest.
    On the other hand Beilstein did not lend itself to browsing in such a manner. Its arcane indexing system making it much less user friendly.

  9. NJBiologist says:

    Is it possible that some of the online music industry’s attempts at serendipity could be useful for scientific publishing? If I select an artist on Rhapsody, the web site will show me playlists which feature that artist–and others. If I pick an album on Amazon, the web site will show me other albums bought with that one. A search on Allmusic will yield lots of artists with similar names, plus influences and followers. Do this with papers instead of music, and you’ve got a mechanism for introducing new stuff into your literature diet.
    Although it’s not quite the same as standing in front of the new journals pile on the windowsills at the NIH library on a spring day….

  10. processchemist says:

    I happily choosed for the e-release of C&EN: who needs to keep a printed copy?
    But I’ll be really disappointed by a switch to an electronic only release of OPRD. Never thinked about the printed copies of this journal as a waste of shelf space.

  11. Hap says:

    I never read journals or C+EN on a computer, so the switch will be painful. Laptops suck for reading (though the baby can’t crumple up a keyboard the same way she does paper), and the other option is reading at work (also known as “not an option”). I can’t lie in bed and read, or read in the car, or read in any of the other places in which I find reading journals to be useful, with an e-journal. I wouldn’t mind dumping paper C+EN, but without an alternative that gives me similar functionality (in where I can read, specifically), it would be counterproductive for me. I’m not willing to suffer added eyestrain and inconvenience to save someone else money.
    Let’s just say this is awful and leave it at that.

  12. El Selectride says:

    NJBiologist: ACS kind of already does that. There’s a “related content” column that pops up on the right-hand side of the page when you’re looking up articles. I never really use it, so I’m not entirely sure how related the content actually is.

  13. But online access will is only temporary. Those old JOC volumes in your basement are always accessable for free. You paid for them, now they are yours. The online access will disappear when the subscription fees are no longer paid.

  14. Dana Robinson says:

    Now if only ACS would include the full author lists in their RSS feeds. Just listing the lead author isn’t nearly as helpful.
    Personally I like paper since computers are lower resolution and a lot less portable but I can see why bound journals are going away. I compromise by printing out most articles I intend to read in full. I tend to scribble notes all over them in colored marker anyway and there’s really no good electronic way to do that.
    I think the serendipitous discovery thing is less of an issue. I get related content either through my RSS feeds (which show everything for a particular journal) or by doing a little tangental browsing while perusing the literature.
    One thing I want to heartily recommend to all is a good RSS feed reader (I use Google Reader). It’s really amazingly handy to have new journal content sent to your reader. A lot of the major publishers use it – ACS, PNAS, Science, NPG, PLoS and you’ll get notification of articles and news as they are released.

  15. Brooks Moses says:

    I admit to finding the complete death of print somewhat surprising.
    With the advent of print-on-demand companies like, it would seem not very difficult for a publisher to arrange something where online subscribers could pay an appropriate printing fee and get a one-off book made for them that contains printouts of all of the PDFs from that issue, with a little bit of TOC front-matter and a standard cover. Whether people would pay for it or not is not so clear, I suppose, but it would at least avoid all the costs of setting up print runs and keeping inventory and so forth.
    On a completely different note — if any of the rest of you happen to be in a situation of being around a skip full of discarded journals going back to the early 1900s, keep a look out for Volume 1 of the Annual Review of Biochemistry, from 1932. From what I’ve heard from my wife, it (and probably the next couple as well) is rare enough that Annual Reviews would very much appreciate having an extra copy.

  16. milkshake says:

    I miss the wonderful musty libraries, with treacherous spiral staircases, the shelves stuffed with 3-inch thick bound volumes of Berichtes, J Chem Soc and Annalen, and the perverse process of using cummulative 5-year General Subject Index volumes to do search in chemical Abstracts and byzantine outdated Beilstein compendiums…
    A lit search would consume the whole afternoon at least, and there were only few libraries that could afford the super-expensive condensed CA indexes and have complete organic Reactions and Organic Syntheses and Houben-Weyl and Beilstein – but still, when you were at it you felt like you were part of a secretive Illuminati religious order. Reading stuff online doe not compare.

  17. Chrispy says:

    As a chemist who cut his teeth doing library searches the old fashioned way, all I can say is good riddance. Ironically, some of the most recent stuff (which hadn’t yet found its way into the indexes) was as hard to find as the 100-year old papers. And it was all too darn hard to find. Lugging stacks of bound journals to the photocopiers — ugh! Serendipity happens a lot more now that it is simply easier to paw through tons of data — anyone else finding Google to be better in many respects than PubMed?
    I do miss the afternoons in the library, looking over the rack of “just arrived” journals. But not enough to go back!

  18. John Harrold says:

    Hey Derek,
    I know you’re a mac guy, and I don’t know what you do in terms of organizing your journals. If you haven’t seen it, you should check out Papers ( I would have read a lot more when I was in grad school if I had access to something like this.

  19. Cellbio says:

    I search on Google routinely, like it better, but still use the institution portal to get PDFs.
    I did miss the serendipity of hard copy. One of the best things that happened during my thesis was a total failed project. Left me in the library for months. I read everything in our buildings reading room. The unrelated stuff was very valuable. I tried to keep this up, but the volume of pblishing is relentless, and I’ve had better luck with projects. I try to do this still by choosing a handful of journals and reading through TOC and picking several “unrelated” articles to browse. I find the access and imperminance of the paperless copy makes it more likely that I will browse. The cost and physical containment issues for paper copy are an impediment for me.

  20. drug_hunter says:

    Anyone care to guess how much the subscription rates will drop, given that the ACS costs will decrease substantially when they phase out paper journals?
    My guess is … not one jot, tittle, smidgen, iota, … you get the idea.
    Other views?

  21. Handles says:

    Print had its problems; missing volumes, warehoused volumes that you had to request. Once a page of my journal article was missing because there was an amphetamine synthesis on the reverse of the same page, some moron had ripped it out rather than pay for a photocopy.
    I will never ever miss doing Chemical Abstracts searching using the printed volumes. I always had a nagging suspicion that I daydreamed out at the wrong moment and missed something crucial.

  22. Bored says:

    The bottom line is the money saved by going electronic. I get that. The problem with a “paperless” society is that all these electronic files will one day get corrupted or lost, and this Era of our culture will be as difficult to decipher as the Pre-Cambrian. You know, maybe that will be a good thing.

  23. MTK says:

    I agree with Chrispy and Handles. I won’t mind a bit when bound journals are gone. While I appreciated the fact that I could take an extended nature break while pursuing a journal, it doesn’t come close to making up all the time I spent looking up terms in a volume of ChemAbstracts, going to another volume to find out if it was anywhere near what I wanted, then lugging journals to the copier, etc.
    The only part I liked was that I got good at photocopying (I always chose to make two copies and would slide the journal over quickly between scans in order to copy two pages while hitting the copy button only once. Must have saved me a whole three seconds per page.)

  24. CMC guy says:

    There are clear advantages to the modern search capabilities to locate specific info and online access to obscure citations and do not advocate to return to laborious CA hard bound days. Yet except for #14 Danas comments I am unsure how people are going to come across tangential or arbitrary papers that can be of value in innovation unless know a prof or colleague who seem to keep all literature in their heads (so is issue of asking the right question).
    #22 Bored makes an excellent point as how easily data can be damaged or lost. I have had two computers die in past few months and was totally out of sorts attempting to accomplish daily tasks. Although disasters can happen to hard copies would appear less chance of complete destruction from a virus or shift in technologies (how many useless 5 1-2 floppies do you have). If nothing else paper can be used for fuel or hygiene in post-Apocalypse world.

  25. Ian Argent says:

    It isn’t just chem/bio where this is happening. One of my hobbies is roleplaying games and the primary magazines for the hoary old standard (dungeons and dragon) went electronic only last year. And my father-in-law who is a law librarian has been for years not ordering media that is more easily accessible over the internet. (this apparently peeved the middle of the age bracket lawyers much more than the ones on either end).

  26. srp says:

    When I was in college (late 1970s-early 1980s) I worked part-time in the library processing interlibrary loan requests. This involved digging through an actual card catalogue in the main research library.
    Some 70% of the requests to us were from local company libraries seeking bio and chem books and journals. I learned that “nauk” was Russian for sciences real fast, because those damn Academei Nauk searches were pretty common. I imagine that electronic data retrieval has eliminated most of this mail traffic in bound volumes.

  27. S Silverstein says:

    Here was what Maurice Hilleman wrote on this topic a few years before his death:
    link (document image)

  28. Eric says:

    I think some of that “serendipity” is still being captured by broad Pubmed keyword searches, RSS feeds to journal table of contents, and services like Pubget that let you browse through journal issues by their PDFs (and thus let you catch glimpses inside each paper and browse like that). Of course, nothing is a substitute for paper in terms of readability, but I’m thankful that I’ve grown up in an age where most things are now electronic and searchable…

  29. JAB says:

    Having just sent off a big bundle of journals for binding, I guess I’m in the retro crowd. It seems likely that the condensed print format is only a bridge to e-only. I wonder, though, if it would be useful for ACS to send all subscribers to a journal a CD at volume’s end so they could continue to possess what they paid for ? With suitable compression at least a small journal would fit on a disk…I know they aren’t long-term archival…

  30. Jose says:

    How many times have you stumbled on a highly useful prep (in a title-wise, wholly unrelated paper) while flipping to another article of note? This idea generation mechanism will be gone, gone. I certainly understand the ACS’s situation here, they cannot publish hardcopies just to do it. The distressing part to me is that soon, unless you are in academia, or at a larger research institute, you have absolutely NO access to the literature. Fork over $40 each time you see a interesting article? Not bloody likely.

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