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Scholars have quickly transitioned to using the internet as a primary vehicle for conducting academic research and the preferred method for disseminating their own published works. Considering the ongoing digital evolution of the research landscape, it’s a near certainty that all journals will have to eventually convert to online publications. Yet, many journals are still holding onto their print issues for reasons of tradition and uncertainty about how to go about making the switch to online only.

What does transitioning to online-only publishing entail? And what steps should journals be taking to make a smooth switch? To answer these questions we caught up with Trish Groves, director of academic outreach at BMJ and editor-in-chief of BMJ Open. Groves gave a presentation titled “Transition from Print to Online Publishing“ at the 2016 Annual Council of Science Editors (CSE) meeting along with Helen Atkins, director of publishing services at PLoS, and David Gillikin, chief of the bibliographic services division at the National Library of Medicine. In the interview below, Groves shares some highlights from the presentation and her experience working with the BMJ team to transition journals to online only, as well as to launch “born-digital” publications.

Q&A with Trish Groves

Is it better for journals to gradually move to online only, or should journals make an immediate switch from print to online publishing? What are the pros and cons of either approach?

TG: I should start by explaining that I’m an editor, not a publisher. So my thoughts are much more about meeting the needs of readers and authors, rather than any technical or commercial aspects of print vs online publishing. And, as an editor for the past 28 years at the BMJ - a journal that first embraced open access (OA) in the mid-1990s - I see online and open access publishing as being closely intertwined.

Indeed, the decision to launch or switch to a purely online journal these days will often be driven largely by the market’s demand for - and its ability to support - OA publishing. For original research papers, that market will mostly comprise of study funders and research institutions willing to pay article processing charges (APCs).

Coupled with the continuing decline in display advertising and the downward pressure on institutional subscriptions, ‘flipping’ journals from either print or paywalled online publishing to OA makes economic sense for many journal publishers and owners. But it isn’t easy, it requires careful planning, and can take about a year to achieve successfully, according to a literature review from Harvard Library earlier this year (Solomon, Laakso, Björk August 2016). The authors reviewed 15 journal-flipping scenarios, 10 of which depend on APCs, and reported a wide range of pros and cons.

Why is having an online journal edition so important, and do you think online publishing is eliminating the need for print?

TG: Online publishing is surely a no brainer these days, as people have less time and tolerance for reading print. When online journal publishing first took off, readers at the cutting edge were getting their laptops out to catch up with the latest scholarly information. You only have to look around in any public space to know that most people now read (very) often on smartphones and tablets, and often find content via social media rather than through electronic tables of contents. Any journal that hasn’t yet transitioned should think as much about mobile as online.

In March 2015 the STM Report (Ware and McCabe, 2015) noted that “All STM journals are now available online, with just a few exceptions…Print’s advantage over digital in terms of portability and readability seem likely to be eroded by the latest tablets, and these mobile formats also appear to be offering some compelling benefits to advertisers…print editions will, however, finally start to disappear from publisher’s lists in significant numbers over the next couple of years.”

Some journals fear that if they go online-only some authors or readers will be disappointed. Do you think that’s the case?

TG: Anecdotally, academics still like to say ‘look, my paper’s filled 5 pages in this week’s issue.’ PDFs seem to have largely replaced print pages in the researcher’s heart, though. A journal that switches from print to online without making its PDFs beautiful does so at its peril, and should be prepared for dismayed complaints from authors as well as readers.

In your CSE presentation, you mention that journals moving online must make their online publications the archived and indexed version and let go of using page numbers as part of the article ID. Can you explain the importance of taking these steps when transitioning from print to online publishing?

TG: This is how the BMJ became a fully online-first journal with all content published continuously online and with the online versions being canonical. This liberated the journal, allowing us to slice and dice our content in all kinds of ways to meet the needs of readers and subscribers, including a daily online journal, a weekly print magazine with heavily abridged content largely for our owner’s members, a monthly academic print journal for libraries, and mobile apps.

Your CSE session also focused on the possibility to publish journal content and create citations on a rolling basis online instead of waiting to publish and index compiled journal issues. Can you explain how this rolling publishing model would work and what the benefits are?

TG: For the BMJ’s editorial and publishing teams it was a real challenge switching our thinking to ‘online first/born digital’. And that’s despite the fact that the BMJ was the first general medical journal to go online back in 1996 and the first, in 1998, to provide free full text online access to research articles to deposit the full text in PubMed Central, and to allow authors to retain the copyright of their articles. Until we flipped to continuous online first publication - or the rolling publishing model - for all content in 2008, our processes and schedules were still dominated by the need to deliver a weekly print journal. In the rolling model all articles are published online as they’re ready. We had to really rethink our process to make it more digitally-focused and make all kinds of practical changes such as getting the whole team together for a short morning huddle to prioritize work for each day. We do it standing up, and it keeps everyone on their toes.

What do you think are the primary benefits of online-only journal publishing in terms of editorial workflow and meeting the needs of readers and authors? What are the primary challenges to online-only publishing that journals must work through?

TG: As you’ll have gathered from my previous answers, although the BMJ is fully online first, it isn’t online-only. In this and in other ways it’s an unusual hybrid journal. All research is OA and our Rapid Response eLetters are free (with >100,000 posted since 1998), but most other content is subscription-only (editorial and other scholarly comment, clinical reviews, education, journalism, opinion, and letters to the editor).

My other hat is as editor-in-chief of BMJ Open, an online-only open access general medical research journal, which was born digital in 2011. Its workflows and processes are relatively straightforward, and so is our focus - BMJ Open is a journal that provides authors with fast, open peer review service and pretty fast open access publication. We don’t select or curate content for readers, although we do get a good sense of readers’ behavior through article-level metrics and altmetrics. Perhaps the biggest challenge for reputable, high quality, online-only OA journals now is bad behaviour of a growing minority of predatory and fake journals. To avoid being lumped together with the bad guys, good journals should ensure they promote, follow, and continue to develop principles of transparency and best practices in scholarly publishing.

Danielle Padula

This post was written by Danielle Padula,
Community Development