Editorial -— alas, no more!
At the 1989 annual general meeting and conference of the University, College and Professional Publishers Council of the Publishers Association, Robert Campbell (Blackwell Scientific) let fall words to chill the blood of listening editors. Outlining the development of ADONIS, the huge image database of 218 biomedical journals that uses electronic mail for scanning and fulfilling document delivery requests, he quoted J.D. Bernal as suggesting, some forty years ago, that the individual research paper is the basic unit of research publication, rather than the book or journal. Book publication and sales having peaked in the 1970s and journals in the l980s, it is now, Campbell claimed, the peak for document delivery. The British Library Document Supply Centre is today fulfilling requests for single articles in huge numbers, and the ADONIS scheme is being extended overseas. What is wanted is the individual article, not the whole journal, Campbell said, and that item alone must be delivered.
Meanwhile, the editor at one learned society in the UK is fighting for the survival of back numbers of the society’s 34-year-old journal against librarians on the
editorial board who resent paying storage charges for paper seen as superfluous now that single articles are electronically retrievable.
I hesitate to affiliate with the Luddites but I regret that journal editors seem destined to join Hardy’s reddlemen or ladies’ fan designers as experts in crafts that are no more.
Do other editors find a joy in the compilation -— even creation -— of a whole from its component parts? Copy-editing and proofreading are punctiliously applied to refereed articles—the trees; then we move on to design the wood, aiming for balance in the topics covered in the journal, logic in the arrangement, variety in the length and tone, visual harmony in the double-spread, pleasure in the items filling gaps, consistency in the style throughout; dressing the whole finally with contents lists and volume index. All this is lost if readers really want only the single article, torn from its setting -— or never placed there but going straight from word-processor to database without any intervening textual mise en scene. Does all this satisfy the editor alone -— not enhance the material, nor please the reader?
When single articles are retrieved from document delivery centres a journal loses not only its overall aspect but also everything other than full articles: news, notes, shorter pieces of any sort. Are editorials, correspondence, obituaries and reviews all totally disposable, never to be sought by readers? Many editors can testify to receiving a gratifying number of compliments on short “filler” items that readers really seem to enjoy.
Are journals to become of merely historical interest? We have heard predictions of the paperless society and the death of the printed word for some years now; but the Bernal-Campbell combination makes it clear that journals are the first threatened of the species.
So what should eager editors do? Blink away a tear, and buckle down to a lifetime of unadulterated copy-editing? Apply for work on popular magazines? Form social circles for antiquarian paste-up sessions over afternoon tea? Or trumpet the virtues of the journal as gestalt?
Hazel K. Bell
European Science Editing May 1990; No.40