Perspectives on Transitioning from Print to Online Only

We’ve heard the dire predictions that print is dying quickly, if it is not already dead. More and more information sources are “going digital”, and scholarly journals are most certainly among them. Making the move from print publication to online only is daunting, and there are many factors to consider, from access and impact factor to revenue and reader preferences. However, in the age of the tablet, e-reader, and smartphone and with print costs rising, making a Web presence their only presence is something that many publications are debating.

Mountain Research and Development Goes Online Only: A Case Study

There may be many reasons why a publication makes the decision to move from print to online only. For Mountain Research and Development (MRD), which has been an online-only publication since 2009, the main reason was financial. However, the editors did want to consider reader preferences and they had a strong commitment to keeping MRD free of charge for readers in the Global South (the countries of Africa, Central and Latin America, and most of Asia, many of which are underdeveloped). “We polled MRD’s readership in 2006; about half (110) of our respondents (203) answered the following three questions about whether they wished to see MRD in a format other than print only and whether they were prepared to pay for the additional offer,” said Anne Zimmerman, one of two associate editors of the journal. When results were tallied, 20% of respondents said that they would agree to pay for an electronic, online-only format; 13.6 % would agree to a fee for individual articles on a pay-per-view basis; and 65.5% felt that free access to individual articles would be the best option.

“We interpreted those percentages as a very low willingness among readers to pay for electronic access and a fairly high willingness to see MRD open access,” said Zimmerman. “Because only about half the respondents answered those questions, however, it was not possible to interpret the 65.5% ‘yes to open access’ as a decisive yes to a shift from a print to an online only version.” Moreover, the paid model of online-only access did not seem in keeping with MRD’s commitment to keeping content free of charge for the Global South. Readers in the Global North who were willing to pay for online access would already do so using BioOne or JSTOR, but MRD was concerned about cutting off access for those in the South who could not afford access. “We knew that institutions in the South—and readers in the South in general—would generally not be able to access MRD online if they had to pay for access. Access to MRD in the Global South was (and still is) an essential element of MRD’s mission, and we assumed that many readers would not have Internet access, so we decided not to explore further the possibility of going online only at the time,” said Zimmerman.

Then, in 2008, the journal’s main donor funds were cut drastically, and MRD was forced to find a new business model. It was no longer possible to afford the printing and mailing costs for the journal, and the choice was made to switch to online-only publication. Still, MRD wanted to maintain its policy of free access for the Global South, so the editors decided to make the journal open access and recoup some of the publishing costs via a publication fee.

MRD’s editorial board was not consulted before the decision was reached, but the staff did speak with the International Mountain Society, which holds the journal’s copyright. After all members had agreed to the new business model, MRD began working with Allen Press and BioOne to make the transition from print to online only. The first online-only, open-access issue of MRD was published in February 2009. “Readers seem to have accepted the move to online only and are grateful to be able to access articles free of charge. Our impact factor has increased, and we are generally satisfied with the new model,” Zimmerman said.

When asked whether she had any warnings or advice for other publications that were considering a similar move, Zimmerman said that “it is definitely worth while to compare offers from different places and take time to assess all the implications of going online only and not only the financial ones—what we always kept in mind as we were designing our new business model was MRD’s mission ( The mission proved to be essential in guiding our decisions. It was also important to consult the International Mountain Society; luckily, it agreed with our proposal, and we did not have to make major changes in our proposed business model.” She went on to say that working with “professional partners” was a benefit, and she would caution against self-publishing with journalproduction software, even if it is available free. “We have been very satisfied with our investment in support from publishing partners, such as Allen Press, and the online solutions that they offer. Staying with BioOne has also been useful in our eyes because it keeps MRD among a series of journals of high renown. Generally speaking, we think we have benefited from staying with these professional partners rather than going for a ‘homemade’ solution,” she said.

Considering the Transition

In moving away from print, there are several factors to consider. First, and often most important, is the financial aspect of publication: Will moving to an online-only platform save the journal money without sacrificing quality or content? Print is expensive, but print subscriptions are often the main source of revenue for a journal. Without the physical product to sell to readers, how will revenue be earned? Journals need to consider submission fees, page charges, charges for site access, or a pay-per-view system for site content to close the gap. Crunching the numbers and gaining a clear picture of the financial aspects of a journal both in print and as an electronic resource are important.

If the numbers support a move in theory, it might be time to gauge the reaction of authors and readership. Are authors willing to pay a submission fee or page charges? Are readers interested in electronic content or would they be happier with a print product? (The latter will be especially important in considering whether to charge for access to the site.) A survey of current authors and subscribers, either through e-mail or by mailing a hard-copy questionnaire, can provide a clearer picture of their interest in such a transition. For more information on creating and distributing a successful survey, see

Some other factors to consider:

  • Print is less flexible (corrections cannot be made in articles), and color is more expensive. continued
  • Online only may not be as accessible or user friendly for some regions of the world or for some portions of the reader population.
  • Will the new online-only platform be open access? If not, would access be limited by subscriber passwords? By pay-per-view fees?
  • How will moving away from print affect the impact factor?
  • Will previous or “legacy” content be archived on the site? If so, how many issues? How long will such a project take and what will it cost?

A Vendor’s Perspective: Allen Press

Once a journal has reached the decision to move to online only, it is important to discuss and create a timeline for the transition with a vendor, assuming that self-publication is not being considered. Establish a date for the official launch of the first online-only issue and a deadline for supplying all content to be included. If archived or legacy content will be available online at the moment of launch, time will need to be built into the schedule to convert this content from print to an electronic medium. Cost and readers’ preferences may determine the look and feel of any legacy content: Some journals simply provide scanned copies of old articles on their Web sites, and others have all content rekeyed and formatted for the Web. The look and feel of legacy content may be an item to address in a survey of readers and authors.

According to Christina Berger, at Allen Press, there is no set process for moving a journal; the process varies from publication to publication. To her, the most crucial part of the transition is notifying readers of the move well in advance and making sure that they have the information and support necessary to access the content in its new form when the switch is complete. That may be especially important if viewers will need passwords or access codes for the site; the editorial office or the vendor will need to ensure that people are available to field questions and troubleshoot problems in a timely manner. Often, journals announce the migration to an online-only format with an editorial in the print journal. If your journal already has a Web site, as many do, an announcement on the homepage can be helpful. It is necessary for readers to know the date of the first online-only issue and the method for accessing new content after this date, but many may also wish to read about the reasons behind the decision to change.

Given the current economic situation and technology-driven climate, many organizations are considering onlineonly publication. It is important to weigh all the options and decide what format best fits the journal, both from a financial standpoint and from the standpoint of meeting the needs of readers and authors. Work with publication staff and vendors to determine the best way to meet the needs of the journal and the best platform for achieving the publication’s goals.

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ALAINA WEBSTER is managing editor, Allen Press, Lawrence, Kansas.