I’m traveling today, but as I was scrolling through my RSS feeds on the plane (OK, yeah, I know, but they had free Wi-Fi and why not), I thought about how people of around my scientific generation, maybe a bit younger and certainly the older ones, often talk about how they miss flipping through the physical journals. There was the whole tactile object-in-your-hand thing, of course: I have a Kindle and use it (especially while traveling!), but my wife and I have a ridiculous heap of physical books as well, and we continue to buy more, and both have their points. But the thing that people tend to mention (wistfully) was the serendipity.
You flipped past a lot of other papers while paging through a new issue, and you saw a lot of them while looking things up in the bound volumes, too. Often enough, something would catch your eye, because you weren’t just seeing the title and abstract, you were paging past the figures as well. Most chemists of that era have a story about something they saw while looking for something else that turned out to be useful. It was a real side effect.
That said, it was not a high-percentage side effect, either. The huge majority of the time, you paged right past a bunch of stuff without seeing it that closely, or if you did notice it, you were not exactly excited by it. I’d say that you did get exposed to a broader selection of things that way, during the find-that-paper process, than you would have otherwise, but not efficiently. There’s no denying, though, that the the current click-the-link method takes you past nothing else whatsoever.
At the same time, clicking the link also takes you right to the darn paper, which is something that cannot be said about rooting around in the stacks. Serendipity aside, I think that it’s overall a better use of one’s literature-rooting time to find the thing you’re looking for instantly and seeing if it’s of interest, rather than wrangling bound volumes from the overflow storage room on the lower floor, etc. The “Hmm, look at that” part of the scientific literature is, in fact, pretty well-served by scrolling through RSS journal feeds, as far as I’m concerned. You don’t get the full effect of paging through the whole papers, but you still see a lot of titles and abstracts.
Arguably too many titles and abstracts, true, but there’s always a trade-off. I’m willing to dig through the new articles feeds in order to feel like I’m not missing stuff (although, like everyone else, I occasionally have to Mark All As Read and start over). If you asked me to go back to the table with the new journal issues, next to the shelves of bound volumes, I would, by this point, say Yes to the “Being 25 years younger” part of the deal, but No to the physical paper journal part. . .