It seems as if every few weeks, I see an article about a publication that is going digital. Last month, the owner of Newsweek magazine--a mainstay of newsstands and kiosks for all of my life--announced that it would transition to digital-only publication, with a timeline to be announced this fall. Among glossy think-tank publications, the Wilson Quarterly recently announced that the Summer issue will be its last one to be printed on paper. Among more specialized journals, the most recent issue of the Review of Economic Research on Copyright Issues announced that it was turning to pure digital publication, too.
My own Journal of Economic Perspectives has a different digital landmark. As of a few days ago, all issues of JEP from the current one back to the first issue of Summer 1987 are freely available on-line, courtesy of the journal's publisher, the American Economic Association. (Before this, archives back to 1994 had been available.) For the Spring 2012 issue of the journal, which was the 100th issue since the journal started publication, I wrote an article called "From the Desk of the Managing Editor" which offered some thoughts and reminisces about running the journal. From that article, here are a few reflections on the shift from paper to electronic media.
"Some days, working on an academic journal feels like being among the last of the telephone switchboard operators or the gas lamplighters. Printing on paper is a 500 year-old technology. When the first issue of JEP was printed in 1987, the print run was nearly 25,000 copies. Now, as readers shift to reading online or on CD-ROM, the print run has fallen to 13,000. The American Economic Association has shifted its membership rules toward a model where all dues-paying members have online access to the AEA journals at zero marginal cost, but need to pay extra for paper copies. Thus, in the next few years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the JEP print run fall by half again. The smaller print run means substantial up-front cost savings for the AEA: paper and postage used to amount to half the journal’s budget. But for anyone sitting in a managing editor’s chair, the shorter print runs also raise existential questions about your work: in particular, questions about permanence and serendipity.
"Back in 1986, when we were choosing paper stocks for the journal, “permanence” meant acid-free paper that would last 100 years or more on a library shelf. I’m still acculturating myself to the concept that in the web-world, permanence has little to do with paper quality, but instead means a permanent IP address and a server with multiple back-ups. As a twentieth-century guy, pixels seem impermanent to me. I still get a little shock seeing a CD-ROM with back issues of JEP : almost two decades of my work product condensed down to a space about the size of a lettuce leaf.
"But in a world of evanescent interactive social media, there remains a place for publications that are meant to lay down a record—to last. It pleases me enormously that the American Economic Association in 2010 made all issues of JEP freely available online at <http://e-jep.org>. Archives are available back to 1994; the complete journal back to 1987 will eventually become available. The JEP now has a combination of permanency and omnipresence.
"The other concern about the gradual disappearance of paper journals is the issue of serendipity—the possibility of accidentally finding something of interest. In the old days, serendipity often happened when you were standing in the library stacks, looking up a book or paging through a back issue of a journal, and you ran across another intriguing article. The Journal of Economic Perspectives was founded on the brave and nonobvious assumption that busy-bee academic economists are actually interested in cross-pollination—in reaching out beyond their specialties.
"As the JEP makes a gradual transition from paper to pixels, I hope it doesn’t become a disconnected collection of permanent URLs. When you hold a paper copy of an issue in your hands, the barriers to flipping through a few articles are low. When you receive an e-mail with the table of contents for an issue, the barriers to sampling are a little higher. But perhaps my worries here betray a lack of imagination for where technology is headed. Soon enough, I expect many of us will have full issues of our periodicals delivered directly to our e-readers. When these are tied together with the connectivity of weblinks and blogs, the possibilities for serendipity could easily improve. Starting with the Winter 2012 issue, entire issues of JEP can be downloaded in pdf or e-reader formats."
But the big question I don't mention in this article is financial support. There's no big secret about the American Economic Association finances, which are published on its website. The audited financial statement for 2010, for example, shows that the AEA gets revenue from "license fees" paid by libraries and other institutions that use its EconLit index of economics articles, from subscriptions for the seven AEA journals, from member dues, and from fees paid for listing "Job Openings for Economists" in the AEA publication of that name. These sources of revenue don't change much or at all just because the AEA makes one of its journals, the Journal of Economic Perspectives, freely available. But whether and how Newsweek, the Wilson Quarterly, and Review of Economic Research on Copyright Issues can gather funding and attract readers for their digital publications of the future remains to be seen.