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Research Brief 1

How Users, Publishers, and Librarians Are Responding to E-Journal Publication

In 1996, the Council on Library Resources and the Commission on Preservation and Access asked Stanford University Library’s HighWire Press to conduct a study among users of print and electronic forms of life sciences literature. The goal was to provide an up-to-date description of how scholars are actually using information that is now available online. The co-directors of the study, Professor Carl Gotsch and Vicky Reich, Assistant Director of HighWire Press, soon realized that users are only one group whose actions will affect the future of online publishing. Publishers and librarians are equally significant players, so they too were made part of the study. There follow summaries of the principal findings among the three groups surveyed.


The first phase of the survey was carried out among subscribers to the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), which is published weekly by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and runs to a total of more than 33,000 pages a year, making it the second-largest peer-reviewed publication in the world. In May 1995, HighWire Press made the contents of the JBC available online, as an alternative to the print version. Surveys were sent initially to some 135 senior scientists on the JBC‘s very large editorial board, and then to the remainder of the board, yielding, in all, 250 responses from over 400 members. (Members of the editorial board were thought most likely to be familiar with the existence of the electronic JBC.) The results of these two surveys are shown in the table to the right.

Use of Electronic JBC
Group One Group Two
Using print only 40% 60%
Using on-line only 3% 6%
Using both 57% 34%

Subsequently, some 150 individual subscribers were surveyed, of whom 75 responded. A fourth round of surveys, with somewhat different questions (asking specifically, for example, about the advantages and disadvantages of each format), was sent to a sample of 500 randomly selected authors who published in the JBC in 1996. Despite the fact that a large percentage of this group was from abroad, the response rate of just over 50 percent was only slightly below the 60 percent recorded by members of the editorial board.

Overall, about half the researchers contacted used the print version only; the other half used both print and online versions. At this point, scientists appear to regard the versions as complementary. One does not substitute for the other. Scientists with access to JBC online were overwhelmingly pleased with the quality and style of its presentation. The online version offers the advantages of rapid searching, convenience, timeliness, and efficient storage. The printed version offers ease of reading, figures reproduced with higher quality, the serendipity of discovery while browsing, independence from computer systems, and portability. The persistent differences in the advantages cited argue that the two versions are viewed as different ways of obtaining information, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Scientists appear to regard the print and on-line versions as complementary. One does not substitute for the other.

Scientists who find it easy to access the online version are solidly in favor of it, even if they do not favor an online-only option. A small number of scientists, estimated at approximately 5 percent, used the electronic version exclusively. But for the group of scientists who did not grow up with computers, or who do not have access to the state-of-the-art technology needed to read online materials comfortably, moving to an online-only version would make access to the JBC much more difficult. When asked why they did not use the electronic version, some 100 members of the editorial board of JBC responded simply, “I prefer paper.” Given a choice between having the JBC online and having it in print format, respondents to the surveys, not surprisingly, chose to have it both ways.


Publishers are understandably concerned about the financial consequences of moving materials online. They fear that online institutional subscriptions will cannibalize individual subscriptions, and that online subscriptions, individual or institutional, will cannibalize print. A third concern is that pay-per-view services, which allow non-subscribers to obtain full text, will erode the subscriber base, as marginal readers decide to pay only for what they need rather than have a full subscription. Lastly, they worry that providing abstracts free of charge to all network users will diminish the value delivered to subscribers, because an abstract is sufficient to communicate the argument of a paper.

These concerns have led publishers to experiment with new subscription models for individuals and institutions, and with “bundling” and “unbundling” options. Not all of these options are popular among subscribers. Librarians, for example, do not like “forced bundled” models, in which a print copy of a journal is required and the online version carries an additional charge, even though the contents of the two are similar. They respond more favorably to unbundled print and online options, with a bundled-price advantage; for example, when the subscription to an online journal is priced the same as the equivalent print version, and the price for a combined print and online subscription is discounted in some fashion. The JBC business model, which is unbundled, offers a choice and no price advantage: print for $1,400, online for $1,100, or both for $2,500. Most librarians who do not have the resources to pay for both a print and an online edition are choosing the print.

Publishers are also proposing various kinds of institutional-access controls-such as site licenses, which may be unrestricted (all computers at a subscribing site are authorized to access a journal), or limited (prices rise as a percentage of the single user price as the number of simultaneous users rises). Or they may allow situated authorized computers (particular machines within an institution, most often within the library, are designated to receive the electronic versions of publications).

Models for individual subscribers follow many of the institutional models. For example, members of professional associations who subscribe to print journals may also receive the full text online at no cost or for a small surcharge, or they may have the option of buying the online version only. Pay-per-view is regarded more as a non-subscription model-users enter their credit card numbers, for example, to pay for article-sized content. Other models for controlling individual access to electronic information employ passwords and authorization numbers.

Overall, the evidence with respect to publishers suggests that they are using the emergence of electronic formats as a device for collecting market information while simultaneously enhancing their revenues. But because data on costs are largely proprietary, there is no available evidence as to whether the increase in their gross revenues is also yielding an increase in net revenues.

It seems likely that the overall increase in serial prices resulting from the additional charges for online displays will put substantial pressures on second-tier journals. So long as the problems of archiving electronic materials remain unsolved, and users continue to resist abandoning print entirely, few institutions will give up their print titles. But many will decide to make modest investments in the online versions of major journals. In the face of stagnant library budgets, these investments will be possible only if institutions reduce the number of their second-tier print titles.


If users create the demand for electronic publications, and publishers create the supply, it is librarians who create the “market” that brings the two together. The attention paid to users and publishers tends to obscure the significance of what librarians do. Their need to operate within budgetary and institutional constraints will have a profound influence on the rapidity with which online journals and books are adopted.

The electronic environment has created uncertainty for librarians in several critical areas. They must maintain a constantly evolving technological infrastructure within the constraints of budgets that may require giving up old, and often popular, programs to take on anything new-and they resist making any choice that disenfranchises users who lack access to electronic materials. Librarians also find themselves having to devote much more time to vendor relationships in order to understand and evaluate the variety of new business models from publishers. And they must cope with newly emerging intellectual property issues that blur the well-established limits of guidelines for the fair use of printed library materials.

Three hundred of the approximately 3,300 institutional subscriptions to JBC were surveyed, and the findings were supplemented by focus groups conducted in the Stanford area by Science magazine. (The response rate to the survey was only 20 percent, which may reflect, in part, the large number of foreign institutions that subscribe to JBC.) The results of the survey of institutional subscribers suggest that in the larger organizations, including research libraries, librarians play a significant role in determining policies for online subscriptions. They are the major gatekeepers to electronic publishing where issues of cost are concerned. It is librarians who must weigh the increased cost of adding the electronic version of a journal against the competing need to maintain the breadth of print serials and monograph collections. This assessment is likely to become even more critical in the future. Adding anything new frequently requires surrendering something current. The generally accepted notion that, in periods of rapid change, old and new technologies may exist side-by-side is of little consolation when their materials budgets allow librarians so little flexibility.

Librarians are not yet replacing print journals with online versions, or canceling duplicate print subscriptions, even when an online journal is available for unlimited access via the campus network. They will move slowly and cautiously to substitute e-journals for print if doing so means a substantial additional decline in their already-reduced serials holdings. Further, the lack of cost-effective and widely accepted solutions to the problems of archiving electronic materials and assigning the ownership of these new forms of intellectual property will be a significant incentive to retain print versions, at least in the near term. Librarians will not risk the criticism that might come were they to rely on relatively unproved technical and institutional arrangements for archiving.

Librarians overwhelmingly identified cost as a major criterion in the decision to acquire a particular print journal. (Other highly ranked selection criteria included subject relevance, scope, and requests from faculty members.) With few exceptions, they clearly intend to treat online versions of print journals as other titles, to be judged against the entire list of journals that compete for scarce resources. This will surely spell trouble for second-tier print journals, which are regarded as marginal to disciplines. The print runs of these journals are already quite small, and, if they are to survive at all, their costs will have to be reduced significantly. To save them, publishers may be influenced to move to online publication only. So too may financial considerations dictate that start-up journals increasingly be online only. Given the higher costs of the established core journals and the pressures on library budgets, there is simply no room for additional print journals to find a niche in the market place.

What’s Ahead

The directors of the Stanford study take a conservative view on the most likely path of events over the next three-to-five years. During this period, they expect electronic publishing to be an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary technology. In the science and technology area, where timeliness and high volume (e.g., weekly and monthly issues) create favorable economies of scale, competition will force most publishers to produce online counterparts to their print offerings. But, except for those few associations committed to pushing the publishing envelope, the two versions are likely to remain quite similar.

The impact of online publishing on social science and humanities journals is likely to lag well behind the impact on journals of science, technology, and medicine. In part, this is a function of the relative difference in computer access and literacy among researchers in these fields; it is also a function of the economics of putting infrequently published journals online. Online journals, if they are done well, have a substantial initial launching cost. If these one-time costs, which differ only marginally among journals, are distributed over only two, or even four, issues per year, the increase in subscription charges that would be required to make the production of an online version profitable is likely to be prohibitive.

Research Briefs are occasional papers published by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to describe the outcome, or the current status, of projects undertaken within its programs. CLIR encourages duplication of these papers and requires no permission for their further distribution.

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