This question follows from a MathOverflow question, "Why should one subscribe to print Journals".

It seems obvious to me that having print journals in a library is beneficial. Yes, Arxiv, MathSciNet, Blogs and lecture notes by Mathematicians, Math Overflow, Wikipedia and Scholarpedia all of these have been extremely helpful in dissemination of research mathematics. Amongst other things electronic copies of articles helped immensely in increasing accessibility.

Most journals these days have an online version. Which probably only a few would argue is not beneficial.

What I can't get myself agree is the opinion that one should stop subscribing to print copies of journals altogether. The arguments against subscribing both print and online I have come across are cost, space constraint, and redundancy.

The difference between online and print+online versions of journals are often marginal. If space constraint is an issue then one can argue against having a library as well. Why subscribe to the journals at all as most of the articles are available in the internet free.

What I can't fathom is the argument that print version of journals have become redundant.

I am asking this as in a discussion regarding journal subscription many faculty members expressed the opinion that we should stop subscribing to print version of the journals. How does one defend the case for need of print journals?

Am I overly emotional and just nostalgic for old times? So many times I chanced upon a result while browsing through the pages of a journal; sometimes relevant to my own area, and sometimes totally unrelated but so exciting that it got me interested in that area.

I am sure this issue or debate is not limited to my university and I am asking this question here hoping to benefit from the comments and thoughts you may share.

My question is what are the benefits of subscribing print version of journals, even if online versions are available. How it helps the research of faculty and graduate students.

  • 1
    This article may be relevant to your point : bbc.com/news/uk-43106436
    – Solar Mike
    Feb 23, 2018 at 17:15
  • Is something wrong with your keyboard's shift key?
    – user9646
    Feb 23, 2018 at 17:56
  • @Najib Idrissi Yes. But how did you figure out !?
    – Vagabond
    Feb 23, 2018 at 18:02
  • 5
    You're Capitalizing words At rAnDOm.
    – user9646
    Feb 23, 2018 at 18:04
  • 1
    Your question assumes that print versions of journals should exist, and it's just a question of whether you get the paper version in addition to the online version. But I, and I believe many others, see the process of getting an article ready for printing as a waste of time (at significant cost, and often introducing errors), as the online-ready version already did all we wanted it to.
    – Jessica B
    Feb 24, 2018 at 7:41

2 Answers 2


Ok, as a paper fetichist, OA activist and former scientific advisor for a mathematical library, I cannot not answer this. But I must distinguish several perspectives.

What I like about paper journals

I like to hold them, and let the paper smell and nice typography sink in in the background of my mathematical immersion.

Unfortunately, most large commercial publisher are doing such an awful job that this emotion is barely possible anymore with many otherwise great journals. Come on: GAFA allows an article to start on a left page, in Advances you see both recto and verso superimposed because of the low-quality paper, even Inventiones has too light or too bold printing making papers sometimes difficult to read. Thank goodness there are still Acta with large yellow pages, the Annals, the journals of MSP and a few others that stand out, but unfortunately I lost my library when I got my current position.

I like that I get to know about what is done outside my fields

When I still had a great library with many paper subscriptions, I would look at all abstracts in certain journals, and when an abstract seemed interesting I would read the introduction. It would very rarely result in a direct connection to my own works, but I think I got several research ideas that way and more importantly, it would enlarge my mathematical culture constantly.

This point could be emulated in an electronic format (and is partially, through e.g. arXiv email alerts), but it is not the same at least for me, and in the current state of affairs.

I like the calm and solemnity of a library

I enjoyed very much to go from volume to volume following citations and knowing that I would get in a few minutes almost all I needed, while benefiting with the almost monastic atmosphere of a library. Being out of my office, this also meant no interruptions.

This was only possible because the library I had was really great.

What are reasons to keep paper subscriptions outside of my own experience

To hold what we buy

For some time, electronic subscriptions gave permanent access to the period that was subscribed, but this seems to become the exception rather than the rule, and in any case might turn difficult to enforce (if you need a trial to get access, that is an issue). Once you buy a volume of journal, the publisher will not get in your library and take it back. There is a great safety in this, that electronic subscription cannot provide completely.

In France, we are devising a plan to have every significant mathematical journal identified and subscribed to by at least two libraries, in paper version, with a pledge to take good care of them (have them binded, indexed, etc.), mainly as a safety net.

Not much more

Honestly, the use of paper versions have declined so much that it is often difficult to argue in favor of paper versions, and I totally understand the choice to transform libraries into learning centers and concentrate on electronic subscription. It makes me a bit sad, but I get it.

One thing that has not been considered enough until now, is how to get electronic version better. They are still too close from scanned papers, which makes the situation far from optimal. My bet currently is that the energy needed to defend paper would be more useful in pushing for better public scholarly communication infrastructures (hat tip to Björn Brembs).

  • I am not sure that electronic articles would stay easily readable in 50 or 100 years (while paper journals will be readable). Feb 26, 2018 at 19:31
  • 1
    @BasileStarynkevitch the low quality of most large commercial publisher's print makes it quite dubious that paper articles will still be readable in 50 to 100 years. The ink might not stick to the page, for all we know. Feb 27, 2018 at 19:57

Here are a few arguments for print journals, some I’ve heard, and some I’d make personally.

  1. Accessibility. Print journals can make journal articles accessible through the mail. This may seem an anachronism, but it still matters. There are locations in the world (including in developed countries) where the most convenient means of receipt is by post; rural areas with limited Internet access and no central library come to mind.

  2. Interactivity. Print journals are still generally more interactive than their digital counterparts. You can hold them, make notes on them, record your impressions, clearly index them, and even cut out sections.

  3. Curation of linked content. Each journal issue may provide multiple linked articles, which together tackle a question from multiple angles. This can facilitate better comprehension of a topic or encourage the reader to explore multiple facets of an idea. In the physical form, these relationships are made very clear.

  4. Disconnecting. You don’t need to get on the Internet to read the journal; physical journals encourage you to break away from your computer and allow for a productive use of time in the physical world. You can keep it analog, if you will — somewhat of a luxury these days.

  5. Anticipation. You can look forward to receiving a nice package of great articles with each issue. Rather than an article or two a day, you can get a nice meaty hit of intellectually stimulating goodness. It’s a great excuse to set aside a reading day, if your schedule is amenable.

  6. Health. This may seem silly at first glance, but humor me here. Reading print is easier on the eyes for many people and can reduce eye strain. Further, you don’t continually stare at artificial blue light (a frequency in the visible light spectrum that is involved in the modulation of the hormone melatonin). If you plan on reading after sun down, a journal is probably a healthier option than a screen over the long term. There’s a lot of literature on PubMed, but here’s a nice overview.

Of course, those 6 reasons may not be particularly relevant to a faculty department — maybe 3 - 5, but probably not to the degree that they would make a print subscription worth it.

Specific to a faculty department? I’ve seen journals by water coolers and in reception areas, perhaps in the hope that they can encourage conversation or, simply, give visitors the opportunity to read about research that is relevant to the department domain(s) — not so dissimilar from academic posters that find their home in the departments halls.

  • 2
    For accessibility, another important aspect is that it can be carried around wherever you go, even in areas without electric sockets, internet connections or just somewhere where you would not wish to bring a laptop/similar device. Feb 24, 2018 at 9:16
  • 1
    I’d argue that some of those characteristics could also provide flexibility, in addition to accessibility. In a way, you’re stripping a dependency (electricity), which allows you more flexibility in where and when you read articles.
    – Greenstick
    Feb 26, 2018 at 19:30

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .