/ Causerie: Why I Don't Read Electronic Journals: An Iconoclast Speaks Out

I suppose a simple answer to why I do not read journals online would be that the subject matter I want or believe I need is not available in digital form.

However, even if it were, I would encounter at least half a dozen obstacles or disadvantages to such use.

The first is the difficulty of reading a screen with normal reading glasses. Readers really need "trifocals" if they are to sit comfortably at a computer monitor.

Another preliminary problem has to do with establishing the source and authority of the text. In a printed version, the physical package gives immediate evidence of the provenance. Not so with a fragment on the screen.

When it comes to actually reading and using what is still "printed material" even if electronically displayed, other difficulties appear. After 400 years of refinement, various typographic conventions are almost universally employed and understood to assist the reader. Titles, headings, subheadings, typefaces, punctuation and the like speed the reader's perusal. Column width, proportion, density, paragraphing, page breaks and folios are all part of the art of the printed word. These efficient features are generally neglected, impossible to reproduce or inherently invisible in sequential screen viewing. What is worse, the jumble and incoherence of computer display is being carried back in print to contemporary magazine formats by designers who regard it as "hip" or may simply not know any better.

Another difficulty confronts readers who are accustomed to mark up an article for further use. Unless a printout is generated, this activity becomes at best an additional keyboard exercise provided one is schooled in online editing.

Which brings me to the obstacles to subsequent use. After the reader has examined the text with or without annotation, how will it be accessed conveniently in a week, a month, a year? Perhaps it is not unreasonable to imagine a future in which a person's shelves will be lined with disks, but I will not be there.

Finally there is the question of "first sale" of intellectual property. If I choose to lend or pass along my print journal to my friend or colleague, that is my acknowledged right. However, at least with today's technology, I am not entitled to retransmit from my computer what I may want to share with another reader unless I have a special license.

I'll tell you what — just mail me the journal.

Peter C. Grenquist is a publishing-management consultant who teaches at New York University. From l990 to l997 he was Executive Director of the Associaton of American University Presses. Much of his prior career was in trade publishing, where he held positions as general manager of the General Books Division of McGraw-Hill; president and CEO of Arco Publishing, Inc.; and in a series of positions at Prentice-Hall from director of Spectrum (paperback) Books and vice-president of the College Division to president of the Trade Book Divison and Children's Book Division. His undergraduate degree is from Dartmouth College, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University.