Editor's Choice

Electronic, international, and ready for anything

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.316.7138.0 (Published 11 April 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:0

A book that the BMJ published in 1990 on the future of medical journals made no mention of the internet. In May 1995 we began posting material from the BMJ on the internet. Today we launch the eBMJ, an electronic version of the journal that includes not only the full text of everything published in the paper version but also begins to use the remarkable capabilities of the internet. The future is coming so fast that it's more difficult than ever to know where it will lead.

Eventually the eBMJ is likely to be the primary version of the journal, with the paper journal being one of its manifestations. This transformation is well under way with physics and chemistry journals, and some medical journals—for example, Pediatrics— are already including reports on studies (we can't call them papers any more) in their electronic version that are not included in the paper versions. Some journals are also posting reports on studies on their websites the minute they are accepted, meaning they appear electronically months before they appear on paper. This vision of an electronic future will excite some and appal others, but those who love paper and hate computers need not fear. The ease of reading and handling paper and its transportability and familiarity make it most unlikely that it will ever disappear.

But where electronic journals will go is far from clear. They might disappear altogether as authors of studies find other ways to reach readers, or we might move to a few megajournals with all the small ones disappearing. The editor of Circulation, the world's primary cardiology journal, thinks, for instance, that one cardiology journal is enough. To survive, journals will have to learn to use the full benefits of the web—speed, worldwide reach, infinite capacity, searchability, interactivity, the ability to link, and so on. Paper people must become web people.

One of the most obvious benefits of an electronic journal is that new material can be accessed immediately anywhere in the world. It wasn't much more than a 100 years ago that it took 18 months for a letter sent from Britain to get a reply from New Zealand. The paper version of the BMJ still takes well over a week to get there. The immediacy and reach of electronic publishing means that an international journal like the BMJ can become truly global. Already about three quarters of the roughly 20 000 people who access the eBMJ each week come from outside Britain, and about 40% have never seen the paper version. This issue of the journal includes information from India, France, the United States, Bangladesh, Canada, the four countries of Britain, South Africa, Norway, Poland, Thailand, Finland, Nicaragua, Cuba, Australia, and New Zealand, but perhaps an issue five years from now will be still more international. If, of course, there is one.

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