Is there a future for scientific journals?

Jaap van Harten


Only twenty years ago this question would have led to raised eyebrows. “No future? No way. These journals have been around for over three centuries now, and thriving as never before!” Well, since then the “impossible” has happened: the landscape of scientific journals has undergone major changes, and the end isn’t there yet. Do scientific journals indeed have a future?

The first scientific journal saw the light in 1665: the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Before that, scientists shared their findings in scientific meetings or in letters. The driving force for the start of a journal was the wish to have a wider dissemination of recognized high-quality information, where quality was guaranteed by a system of peer-review.

One century later there was still only a handful of journals, but from that time on until a few decades ago the number of journals grew exponentially, to over 20,000 today. Clearly more than anyone can ever read.


“…the landscape of scientific journals has undergone major changes, and the end isn’t there yet.”

The world wide web significantly changed the role of “journals”. Huge libraries with many miles of books and journals on the shelves, as well as silent or whispering people walking up and down between shelves and reading desks (and later photocopiers) are largely gone, and have turned into “book-sparse” places with the most up-to-date IT facilities and, of vital importance, electronic access to an ocean of scientific literature.

Figure 1: Library in the 1950’s: Students in the Fisher Library, now MacLaurin Hall, Quadrangle, University of Sydney

Gone are the days when researchers spent so much time on writing “reprint request” postcards, and on sending their own article reprints to those who requested a copy. In contrast to only decades ago, researchers have access to countless numbers of articles, generally electronically, rather than to the limited set of journals the library subscribed to. Bad times now for “bookworms” who love the smell of paper!

A direct consequence of the availability of so much content is that article searching has become predominantly electronic rather than going through journal volume indices, tables of content, or the reference lists in articles. And scientists cannot do without services such as PubMed/Medline, EMBASE, SciVerse Scopus, SciVerse ScienceDirect, and Google (Scholar).

These developments have significantly affected the scientific journal as we know it. In libraries researchers no longer see (or are young and have “never” seen) a hard copy of the journals they publish in. And searches have become keyword-based and return a batch of matching articles.

Is it “game over” for scientific journals as we have know them? The answer to that question depends on the definition of a “journal”. If we mean the classical journal in its century-old print manifestation, then the answer is most likely “yes”. Those time are unlikely to reappear.


“A direct consequence of the availability of so much content is that article searching has become predominantly electronic rather than going through journal volume indices, tables of content, or the reference lists in articles.”

My answer, however, would be: “No, we have just been moving to the next level, and it is unlikely that this is the final level of the game. And, as in computer games, higher levels become more difficult, more challenging, and more exciting.” Typewriters have disappeared, but we type more than ever. The “classical” journal is disappearing, but the “future” journal has arrived.

Figure 2: Library 2010: Stockholm University Library


A few characteristics of what has changed:

Conversion from print to electronic journals

Although print journals started as a means to increase dissemination of science, we now see that physical/tangible copies limit dissemination: more expensive to produce, troublesome to distribute, and inflexible to use. As recent as 1997 print journals dominated the world, but now already electronic versions have largely taken over their position: access per article is cheaper, “distribution” is a button click away, and searching and accessing the literature (even better: exactly the literature you are looking for) is easy.

Content enrichment

Print journals publish “flat text”, at best enriched with graphics. In electronic articles there is “space” for all kinds of other content, including video and audio, which can be added as supplementary material to the article, or can be integrated into the online article. Bandwidth and storage capacity are hardly a problem today. Supplementary data are an integral part of the article, and have thus undergone the same quality evaluation as the rest of the article.

Journal content is enriching, and is enriched by, external data sources such as databases (e.g. GenBank, chemical structure databases, receptor databases), maps, or graphical tools (e.g. protein viewer, brain navigator). Data becomes information.

The way articles are read

For centuries articles are published in a fixed sequence, something like Introduction, Methods and Results (with tables and figures), Discussion, Conclusion, and References. Very handy in the print era, but even then not all read articles in its entirety from beginning to end. No surprise that alterative layouts are being tested, such as tabbed online articles and extensive internal (and external) linking. Wherever readers enter the article, they can intuitively navigate through the elements of their liking, and often more than that. Many readers like the new approaches, although some still respond with “Can I also continue to read and print the PDFs?”.


“The “classical” journal is disappearing, but the “future” journal has arrived.”


Interactivity with the community

Traditionally, journals provided a discussion platform with Editorials and Letters to the Editor (“Dear Sir, ….”). Electronic platforms linked to the journal (or “the community”) make a dialogue much quicker, more topical, and widespread.

Is there a future for scientific journals? It probably won’t take too long before the centuries-old article all of us are so familiar with will be something for the museum. Like the typewriter. But the scientific journal has a bright future in a modern form. Publishers and communities have the challenging and exciting opportunity to shape that future. Never a dull moment in publishing!

About the author:

Jaap van Harten has a background in clinical pharmacology and pharmacokinetics, and is Executive Publisher of the pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences journals of Elsevier. He is based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


Where do you think scientific journals are heading?