AAS journals going electronic-only

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.

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Ted Bunn

I am an associate professor of physics at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

2 thoughts on “AAS journals going electronic-only”

  1. “Electronic-only publication will allow for further development of them outside of the constraints of print.”

    This is the only real fear I have. People underestimate the effects that the costs of paper production have, even if they read only the electronic version. One thing I expect from the production of a journal or magazine is that it has been sensibly edited. The most valuable thing we have is our time, and I am happy to pay someone to make sure that articles are as long as they should be, but not longer. No, we shouldn’t need to cut out a few sentences if the paper runs to a bit more than a whole number of pages, but on the other hand the lack of paper shouldn’t mean that waffling on and on is now OK.

  2. I agree that editing for brevity and, more importantly, for clarity is in principle a valuable service that journals could provide, and some perhaps even do so. I’m not sure how great a job most astrophysics journals do with that at the moment, unfortunately, but you’re definitely right that an ideal system for dissemination of scientific findings would include that.

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