I REGULARLY take the 8 am bus from home to the MJA office in central Sydney. The atmosphere on board reminds me of my student days just before an exam when we were given 10 minutes of reading time.
On the bus, all seated passengers are reading and quiet. None have their noses in newspapers or books. All are scrutinising smartphones and tablets.
Occasionally the silence is broken by laughter as a passenger reacts to a Facebook message or a YouTube comedy. Otherwise we could be in the silent gloom of the examination hall.
This is the age of electronic information technology.
Apple is selling hundreds of thousands of new generation iPhones worldwide, with predictions that smartphones have the potential to transform the global economy with the explosion in smartphone ownership, particularly in emerging economies.
Medical journals also are increasingly making use of electronic media and exclusively online journals are proliferating. Many use less formal methods than we do at the MJA to select papers for publication and make it easier for readers to access them.
In this new environment the costs have been moved from readers to contributors, with open access journals charging authors $3000 or more per published paper that are then free to readers.
Volatility in the medium in which medical journals are operating means that none of us can stand still and hope to survive.
At the MJA we now publish the journal both online — with parts available only to subscribers — and in print for subscribers. Our research papers are freely accessible to all online.
We also have MJA InSight available for free as an important interactive conveyor of timely information and opinion reinforcing the MJA. If it was not there, you and I would not be communicating now!
So for the moment, like The Economist and The BMJ, you can read the MJA in print or online.
From a financial perspective, the costs of production strongly favour the electronic version but there are drawbacks — browsing a web-based version is an unfamiliar pleasure to many older readers (including me) and the chance encounter with interesting articles that a print version offers the casual reader is missing on the laptop or smartphone.
Apparently some readers take their laptop to bed but this is unromantic and does not really permit the pleasure of “read-dozing”, as I call it and in which I frequently indulge. (You can doze with a laptop but you'll probably be hit in the nose.)
In the past 8 months we have been redeveloping the MJA and you will have already noticed changes. We have moved references for all articles out of print and to online only. They take up space and very few readers look at them in detail in the print version.
Those who want to find a reference usually do so by searching the title online. It is easier to click on a reference in an electronic format than search for it — in other words, most reference-chasers would go to the online version anyway.
We are also about to move to a different format with research papers. We publish research not for its immediate appeal, which is uncommon, but as an archival function — so it is there for others to read and to inform other researchers. Today, researchers are much more likely to chase research papers online than in print.
Print publication means we have to heavily edit articles to fit within a four-page format. Online we can have more detailed reporting and longer, fuller discussions of research findings, so we propose to soon follow The BMJ model and publish research papers in full online and include a one-page summary in print.
The online version will become the definitive version while the print version will offer a communication of the main research results and their implications.
In another step into the digital realm, the MJA will accept letters to the editor as online responses to published articles, much like the comments here on InSight, so that they are more timely.
These changes have been carefully thought through and discussed. We know not every reader will like them.
Your comments are welcome as we seek to move your journal into the new media while retaining its core function of informing the medical profession of important advances in medical science and contributing — as the very first MJA put it 101 years ago — to debates about the evolution of health policy in Australia.
Professor Stephen Leeder is the editor-in-chief of the MJA and emeritus professor of public health and community medicine at the University of Sydney. Find him on Twitter: @stephenleeder
Dr Ruth Armstrong is on leave.