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July 6, 2009
Farewell to Hard Copies
Someone's leaked an American Chemical Society memo to Nature, in which the VP of the publishing division talks about how the printed journals are going to be phased out. The ACS isn't confirming anything, but they're not denying it, either: it looks like the days of paper copies of their journals are numbered.
I've been expecting that. I used to have a print subscription to the Journal of Organic Chemistry back in the early and mid-1990s, and I took them with me in a move in 1997. I interrupted my subscription around that time, and never got around to renewing it. By then, online access was starting to become a more convenient way to locate old articles, and as the ACS improved their archives the advantages became overwhelming. Then I got used to following the new issues online, either by going to the journal's site or by RSS feeds.
So my boxed collection of several years of JOC sat in my basement, in bales of cobalt-blue-covered bricks of paper. I'd planned on moving them into my office, but didn't got around to it at first. That delay allowed the situation to turn into "Hmmm. . .not sure that I see the need to have these taking up the shelf space", which turned into "You know, I need to recycle these things". And gradually, that's just what I did.
When I joined the Wonder Drug Factory in '97, new print journals were still put out on a table in the library as they came in, for people to sit down and read. A few years later, the table was gone, and whole idea was sounding downright Victorian in retrospect. The company where I work now doesn't even have much of a real, printed-on-paper chemistry library at all. It's been years I last picked up a hard copy of any chemistry journal - when I see the cover illustration of a journal on its web site, I keep thinking of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard": Full many a flower is born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air. OK, I'm perhaps a bit weird in that respect. But you get the idea.
Printed copies of journals have some advantages. I used to read JOC in the laundromat when I lived in New Jersey, which kept the casual chit-chat down to a stark minimum, I can tell you. I think that the browsing effect of looking through a hard copy is only partially emulated by scrolling through an RSS feed - the old way, you could see all the details inside a paper as you flipped through, and often learned something. So in a way, I'll miss the bound versions. But then I think of those boxes in my basement, and I realize that there's really no other way.
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