Friday, March 2, 2012

Academic Journals: Print Fading

When I started my job as Managing Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, we distributed about 25,500 print copies of each early issues in the late 1980s. In 2011 we distributed about 13,000 print copies of each issue.  But compared to a lot of leading law reviews, our print circulation is doing extremely well. Ross E. Davies looks at "Law Review Circulation 2011: More Change, More Same," in a just-released paper for the Journal of Law, available on SSRN here.

Here is a table with a few illustrative numbers on the drop-off of print subscriptions at law reviews, whihc are extreme.

Some Law Review Annual Print Circulation Figures
Law Reviews
Boalt (California)

For law reviews, one standard explanation is the arrival of Lexis-Nexis and then other methods of doing legal research on-line. These reasons apply to my own journal, as well. Back issues of my journal have been available though JSTOR for years.

My impressionistic sense is also that law reviews occupy a less central place in the practice of law than they did a few decades ago.For example, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has on several occasions said in interviews that he doesn't find law reviews very useful. Here's a 2011 comment: "Pick up a copy of any law review that you see, and the first article is likely to be, you know, the influence of Immanuel Kant on evidentiary approaches in 18th Century Bulgaria, or something, which I’m sure was of great interest to the academic that wrote it, but isn’t of much help to the bar.” As reported after a 2010 interview, "Roberts said he doesn’t pay much attention to academic legal writing. Law review articles are `more abstract' than practical, and aren’t `particularly helpful for practitioners and judges.'"

For my own journal, I think (or hope?) that the issues are more about alternative methods of access to the journal rather than a perceived lack of relevance. For example, several thousand AEA members have been choosing to get my journal on CD-ROM rather than on paper--and the CD-ROM for any given issue includes about a decade of back issues, too. About two years ago, the AEA voted to make the articles from journal freely available on-line--both current issues and archives. Very soon, it will also be possible to download entire issues onto your own CD-ROM, or on to an e-reader like a Kindle or Nook.

Reducing the barriers to accessing academic journals by making it electronically available seems like an unambiguously good thing. But I do worry about the ongoing decline of print. It's a bit like the old koan, "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?" In my world, if a journal is made available on-line, does anyone actually read it? Sure, the AEA can send out a blast e-mail to let members know that the issue is available. I probably delete a dozen e-mail notifications of something or other almost every day, without giving them much of a look.

The question for my own journal, and for many publications, is how to get the attention of readers if you aren't arriving in physical print form. Attention is a bit "sticky," in the sense that people get used to looking at certain things and not others. In running a journal, you worry that the journal might fall out of the rotation of what people are looking at. Moreover, I worry that the digital world might undervalue a certain kind of intellectual serendipity: the process of looking up an article on one subject, and in the print copy or further along the bookshelf, running across something quite different.

Of course, being freely available over the web also offers enormous opportunities for my own journal to garner attention and to be the outcome of serendipitous searching. Perhaps the real message here is to spend some time surfing purposefully but whimsically in your areas of professional interest, so that you remain open to finding new information sources and new perspectives.

Here's a July 11, 2011 post with further thoughts on Online Access and Academic Journals.