Bring Back Reprint Requests
I miss the instant feedback from the larger scientific community on my papers.
The Internet has changed scientific publishing in many ways, some good and some bad. No one would deny that it is easier to find papers on a particular subject than ever before. Looking up papers in Index Medicus or by browsing Current Contents has long been replaced by online searches on Medline or even Google Scholar. This has not necessarily improved our understanding of the literature, but it certainly provides a quick way to feel up to date.
In some ways, the Internet has even streamlined the submission of manuscripts, although formatting papers correctly still takes an enormous amount of time and the speed of paper review and acceptance doesn’t seem to budge. I still find myself bugging editors after waiting 6–8 weeks with no response—about the same as 20 years ago. Still, overall, I think most scientists feel that the Internet has improved scientific publishing, especially by giving rise to open access journals.
One little-noted casualty of the transition to electronic publishing, however, is the reprint request. Although many authors might bid them good riddance, I sorely miss them because they provided me with one of the best sources of feedback on my scientific research.
For the younger readers, let me explain the concept of reprints and reprint requests. The scientific literature used to be accessed almost completely through journals delivered to libraries. If you found a paper you were interested in reading, usually by scanning article titles in Current Contents or by finding a reference within a paper, you looked it up in the library’s journal collection and made a copy—a slow and cumbersome process. Alternately, you mailed the authors a card requesting a reprint. Indexing services, such as the Institute for Scientific Information, made this process very easy by providing reprint request cards, author addresses, and—eventually—software to print cards.
Requesting and sending reprints was extremely common. After your paper was accepted by a journal, you always ordered lots of reprints, not only to send to grant reviewers and promotion committees, but also to send to fellow scientists. And sending reprint requests to other scientists was a nice way to communicate that you liked their research. Although I usually retrieved papers from the library, I would still ask for reprints from the dozen or so scientists whose work I regularly followed. Although many of my fellow scientists considered reprint requests a big pain, I loved the instant feedback they provided on community interest in my research efforts.
I remember my delight at receiving hundreds of reprint requests for individual papers that I fought long and hard with reviewers to get published. However, I was also surprised to receive only a handful of requests for some papers that I thought were breakthroughs in their field. A quick reality check is always valuable, especially early in your career.
One of the best aspects of feedback from reprint requests was the detailed information it often provided. Requests showed which scientists were interested, their field of study (from their department affiliation), and whether they were following your work over time. Some scientists even included notes. It was also relatively fast. I found that in general, the number of reprint requests for a paper was correlated with eventual citation frequency, but the latter took years to assess. There were also other perks, such as the interesting stamps on requests from Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
Nowadays, we don’t bother with reprints—we just download PDFs. Although convenient, this discourages selective reading and almost completely removes the feedback step from the publication process. However, there really is no reason why online journals could not provide this information. Some journals do provide listings of “highly accessed” articles, but I want to consistently know the number of times that my articles are downloaded and the departments and institutions that download them.
Electronic publishing is rapidly becoming the dominant mode of scientific communication, but it is still a nascent medium with much room for improvement. The lack of a rapid feedback mechanism for our papers is still a significant problem. Fortunately, because of the flexibility and dynamic nature of the Internet, it should be relatively easy to fix this. Letting me know how often my articles are downloaded or accessed is one step, although it will not tell me who is doing the downloading. And I will still miss the neat postage stamps.
Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and director of PNNL’s Biomolecular Systems Initiative.