9 Jun 2012

Libfocus Journal Club - The Transition from Print to Electronic Journals

McClamroch, J. (2011). The Transition from Print to Electronic Journals: A Study of College and University Libraries in Indiana. Evidence Based Library And Information Practice, 6(3), 40-52. Retrieved from http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/10330

Objectives – This study examines what factors are considered by college and university libraries in Indiana when making the decision to cancel subscriptions to print journals when an electronic equivalent is available. The study also looks at who the primary decision makers are in this regard. Libraries at public and private institutions of varying sizes were included in the study.
Methods – An online survey was sent to seventy-three libraries in the consortium, Academic Libraries of Indiana. Structured interviews with administrators at nine libraries were also conducted.
Results – Academic libraries in Indiana use subscription cost, redundancy of formats, student preference, budget reductions and usage as the primary factors in canceling print journal subscriptions in favor of their electronic counterparts. There is also a preference for the electronic format for new subscriptions even when a print version is also available.
Conclusions – The study indicates that subscription cost is the most important consideration in the journal cancellation process with other factors also having an effect on the preference of libraries for electronic versions of journals. The study also shows that libraries at public and private colleges and universities are at different stages of moving away from print to an online-only journal format. At the same time, there is consensus that a small collection of print titles will still be needed. The primary decision-makers are librarians, faculty, and library administrators.

From my own perspective, I would choose electronic over print every time when it comes to accessing journals. However, as a librarian I am all too aware of the fact that there remains a significant cohort of users who still value the experience of visiting the library as a physical space and browsing periodicals in print format. I appreciate this may be more visible in special libraries, where staff may not necessarily always be focused on searching for particular research topics, but rather engage in serendipitous discovery as a means of keeping up to date more generally.

The advantages of electronic journals are becoming too pervasive to ignore however, particularly when I am faced with the weekly challenge of deciding where to squeeze in the latest issue of Blood on the shelf. In this context, managing the transition from print to electronic requires striking an appropriate balance that allows the advantages of digital content to be realised without alienating existing users. McClamroch's study surveys 26 academic librarians regarding the factors that are considered when making the decision to cancel a print subscription in three different scenarios:
  • The Decision to Cancel a Single-Title Print Subscription in Favor of its Electronic Version
  • The Decision to Cancel a Single-Title Print Subscription When There is a Duplicate Version in an Aggregated Database and
  • The Decision to Cancel a Journal Subscription Outright

Ten different factors are ranked based on the responses received in each case, and unsurprisingly cost features as the dominant factor in all three. Meeting the bottom line invariably drives journal subscriptions in the first instance - everything else must be accommodated within this constraint. What's more unexpected however is the relatively low weighting placed on faculty recommendation; even in the case of cancelling a journal completely it is only the fourth highest factor which is taken into account (and indeed it is ranked significantly lower in the other two scenarios). A little surprisingly McClamroch interprets this as being relatively high, and indicative of the weight that librarians place on staff feedback. However, I was surprised by the the finding that almost half of the libraries surveyed do not take faculty recommendation into account at all in the decision to cancel access to a journal completely. It's a relatively small sample size however, so this must be taken into account.

As someone faced with the challenge of segueing from print to electronic (who isn't? :)), I feel open and regular consultation with users and staff is critical. Adding a rigorous evidence-based approach into the decision-making process can also prove particularly effective in helping to achieve buy-in from users, as Anne Murphy highlights in her recent paper, An evidence-based approach to engaging healthcare users in a journal review project. In the meantime, any other advice and suggested strategies for managing the transition will be gratefully received!


  1. An interesting article. As it focuses on academic libraries, it isn't a 100% fit but raises some points relevant to all libraries. For instance, the aggregator issues has caught us on the hop a few times as bundled titles change from year to year. I don't know of any aggregated title supplier who can guarantee continuing inclusion of any individual title.
    Secondly, we need to maintain access to a small but important number of print titles because they contain features (such as job descriptions, clinical trial info) that so far are not being replicated in the online edition.
    Another point to consider is participation in an ILL consortium. Have we undertaken to maintain access to a specific title? Will our online license allow participation? Does any other member of the consortium hold this title?
    When evaluating how we support the organisation's mission, providing access to the evidence where and when needed must be a factor, and the where and when is generally at the point of care. This is where print falls down.
    I recently read an interesting little article in HRB (sorry - I've lost it, so will have to come back with the reference another time) but in essence it emphasized the importance of the packaging and marketing of content rather than thinking only of storage/collection development and dissemination. Should we then be looking more at synthesised evidence such as OvidMD or UpToDate and moving away from the journal format unless it is a core research requirement? More and more of these products are coming on the market - should we encourage primary research by continuing to subscribe to journals, should we give in to popular demand and provide synthesised evidence, or can we find some comfortable middle ground? What about how we provide access to our subscribed journals - does our access platform hinder or encourage their usage?
    Finally, I do think that Anne Murphy hit the nail on the head when she showed how even an activity that is negative on the face of it, can be used to promote the service and develop library champions within the organisation.

  2. Thanks for such a thoughtful response Anne! Some excellent points there especially about the uncertainty regarding continued access through aggregators. We have encountered that very issue recently after cancelling print subscriptions.

    Very interesting point re the sythesised resources - and arguably as the volume or research continues to grow, these resources will be in even greater demand from a clinical reference point of view. Hopefully open access will continue to gain momentum solving some of the problem for us regarding access to ejournals, providing access to primary research even if shrinking budgets dictate making a choice between journals and decision tools.

    As an aside, I think the new Clinical Key product by Elsevier is really targetting this trend - by offering (in theory!) extremely filtered searching of Elsevier's journals - in theory this would mean you could cancel individual Elsevier subscriptions, but then you become dependent on a no-doubt very expensive package and the long-term access and control issues raise their head again!