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More than the fonts have changed
Nathan S. Blow, Ph.D.
Editor-in-Chief, BioTechniques
BioTechniques, Vol. 55, No. 5, November 2013, p. 223
Full Text (PDF)

Leafing through this issue of BioTechniques, some of you might feel a ting of nostalgia, while others might just wonder what the heck is going on. Ahh, the different perspectives of age. Our younger readers will likely be the ones wondering about the “old” look this month, since they will not have been in the lab in the early 1990s, when BioTechniques articles appeared in this style and format. But for those of us who can recall those days, this special issue of BioTechniques should be a throwback to a bygone era, in more ways than one.

Back in the early 1990s, I was finishing my undergraduate education and BioTechniques was the first journal to which I subscribed. Being free (and remaining free to this day), it presented me the opportunity to have my very own copy of a scientific journal. As corny as this might sound, I was proud each time an issue arrived in the lab, because I was part of a much larger group of scientists and researchers reading this journal every month. In those days, articles were not published as quickly as today, but I think there was a stronger sense of journal identity that is missing now. I was able to start my own scientific mini-library, keeping those issues that would help me as my career progressed. It was solid, tangible, physical proof that I was a part of something. Today, I can get any article I need in an instant, but I receive very few journals in print. My job is to keep up with new methods and techniques, but that is increasingly difficult with more journals coming online each day. I tend not to read journals cover to cover anymore. Instead I skim tables of contents and abstracts, usually online, to find relevant information.

Back then, each month BioTechniques would come with a number of PCR, sequencing, cloning, or microscopy techniques/methods articles. There would also be “card decks”, index-sized cards that featured new products or technologies and often contained offers for free samples or other items. I cannot tell you how many times I sent for a free spin column, extraction buffer, or enzyme to trial. As for the cards I did not send in—someone else in the lab would take a couple and use them. My copy of BioTechniques always saw more than one pair of hands.

The journal content was different too. There were not that many news features; instead, the journal focused on publishing a larger number of peer-reviewed methods and technique articles than today. I'm not saying there isn't a place for news—in fact we know many readers enjoy our monthly columns. But at that time, with fewer publishing outlets, the focus was on distributing research to a large community of scientists. There were no flashy fonts or styles, simply clean and direct articles.

While I might be sounding old (which I guess I am now), this editorial is not about yearning for the past. Being able to publish articles quickly and in new formats is a very good thing. Rather, my nostalgia is about how journals promote science by giving authors a voice and a forum to present their research, building a community of readers who actively engage and communicate discoveries beyond the confines of their labs. For me, this is a time to reflect on what we can do in the future to preserve these traditions in an era of fast publishing and decreased oversight, often led by publishers focused on nothing more than the bottom line. Many of today's newer journals exist merely as collections of articles on a website—they lack identity and have simply been put in place to collect author or subscriber fees, which is a sad reflection on the state of scientific publishing.

So, take a look at this special “retro” issue of BioTechniques, and while reflecting on the “old school” look, think about that bygone era where journals existed only in print, submissions were sent by post, and editors called authors with questions. A time where predatory journals did not exist for the most part and publishing was less business and more science. And then ask yourself if speed and convenience are worth losing the feeling of being a part of a community or of creating your own mini-library. Being more connected to information without much context ultimately could make us less connected as scientists.