The American Astronomical Society just announced that they’ll stop producing paper copies of their journals. The Society publishes some of the leading journals in astronomy and astrophysics — the several different flavors of Astrophysical Journal (main journal, letters, supplement series) and the Astronomical Journal — so they’re not exactly a bit player.
The days when people actually looked things up in paper copies of journals are long gone, so this change makes a lot of sense to me. One good consequence: if there’s still a stigma associated with online-only journals (i.e., the notion that something online-only can’t be a “real” journal), the conversion of high-profile journals to online-only has to help combat it.
I’ve heard people say that paper copies are the best way to create a permanent archive of the scholarly record — maybe in 100 years, nobody will be able to read all the electronic copies that are out there. Maybe that’s right, but I doubt it. It’s true that old digital information eventually becomes practically unreadable — I threw out a bunch of floppy disks not too long ago, for instance — but the reason I lost that information is because it’s material that I never tried to preserve in a useful form. Whatever future changes in data storage technology come along, I bet that we can update our electronic scholarly journals accordingly.
The AAS has offered electronic-only subscriptions for a while now, at about 60% the cost of a full (paper+electronic) subscription. The price is not bad compared to other journals, and the profits go to benefit the Society, which I think is a good thing to do. Still, it’s hard for me to see what value the journal is supplying that justifies the costs. The most important thing a journal does is provide peer review, but the actual peer reviewers do it for free.