What’s the Definition of “Read”?

[This is the third in an occasional series of posts on the results from HighWire’s researcher-interview series. The previous posts in the series were about how researchers locate information on topics new to them – the value of “grey literature” – and whether journal brand was important in selecting what to read – yes and no.]

2002 was a time when people still used the term “e-journal” to refer to scholarly journals that were online. This “e” suggested that not all journals – and certainly not all reading of journals – was done online. But a decade later the “e” was pretty much dropped, since all scholarly journals were online, and most all reading started with an online search or browse.

In 2002, we asked researchers how many journals they read. The answer was generally in the range of 3-5.   But a decade later, we asked the same question and the answer was general in the range of 8-10. People reported they were reading twice as many journals, within the space of a decade.

How could this be?   Journals weren’t smaller; nor were articles. Researchers surely didn’t have more time for reading. Yes, the process of reading a journal was somewhat more efficient since you didn’t have to go to the library to read a journal anymore.   But that was largely true in 2002 as well.

The answer turned out to be simple – if a bit Bill-Clinton-esque: the definition of “read” had changed.   Back in 2002, to “read a journal” meant to scan its pages, selectively reading articles that were relevant to the individual or to the lab. But a decade later the definition of “read a journal” meant that you had read its table of contents.

For publishers, this means, in a very basic way, that your emailed tables of contents (“eTOCs”) and RSS feed are the new home page for a journal site, as well as the way people see its TOC.

What form & format were people reading journal tables of contents in? We specifically heard people tell us that they were reading eTOCs, and at the time there was an expression of disinterest in RSS feeds (“I sign up for RSS feeds and then never look at them”).   But this should be recalibrated by looking at eTOC vs. RSS usage patterns in the data we have on referrals to articles from each of these.

Implications for Publishers

Publishers should consider the information, the layout and the functionality that goes into their eTOCs and their RSS feeds.


Is it sufficient to attract the right readers? Is the information only a title? Is the title clearly signaling what an item is about, or is it a clever title? Is there a full list of authors? Or is the first author alone enough?   Is there a short “annotation” that provides the take home message of the article, which can draw additional readers in through implications that are expanded beyond the title? (Science does this for research articles in its table of contents, as do many other journals now.)

If the abstract is available from the eTOC, is it written to make sense to non-experts?


In the case of eTOCs, are you delivering an attractive, easily-scanned enhanced-HTML email, or does your eTOC look like something from a 1995 plain-text-with-gifs time warp?


If your journal has sections that help readers navigate the TOC – whether they be subject-based or article-type bases – are these sections available for navigation in your eTOC if the TOC turns into a multi-page email? Or so you make people hunt for things of interest well beyond the “fold” in a lengthy email (hint: they probably won’t, any more than they read the second page of Google search results).

While we have heard recently that more and more researchers may be shifting from “just in case” reading patterns to “just in time” reading – i.e., shifting from trying to stay informed in their field on an ongoing basis to catching up when they are doing literature research for new work – it isn’t clear that this is or is becoming dominant.   So our recommendation is that all publishers pay attention to the quality and utility of their eTOCs and RSS feeds as a primary user interface for people who are “reading” their journals.

4 thoughts on “What’s the Definition of “Read”?

  1. Authors of papers reporting an incremental advance in an established area can indeed opt for a title “clearly signalling what an item is about.” But a title is also a marketing device and there are numerous accounts of novel advances being subjected to multiple rejections. Those engaged in non-incremental work, especially at interfaces between disciplines, have little option but to use “a clever title.” For example, the use of “selfish” in the context of “gene” would direct many editors to choose reviewers likely not to understand a complex biochemical analysis. A bland title would be employed and exciting findings relating to selfish genes would be relegated to an after-thought in the discussion. A “clever title” would signal to sophisticated readers with much experience of the literature that gold might be found in the discussion, but this would be lost to the average reader – certainly to many of the readers for whom English is not a first language.


  2. Perhaps the term “follow” is more accurate than “read,” John. That people now follow more journals is perhaps not surprising, especially since there are so many more to follow, in most subfields (or micro-fields as some are now calling them). I cannot imagine reading an entire journal. In fact it has been a long time since I read an entire article.

    Also there seem to be some arguable design prescriptions embedded in your ruminations. For example, I am not in favor of making abstracts less technical. When you do that the experts, who are probably the primary readers, have to go to the article to find out what is really going on.


    • I think the word “follow” is a good suggestion. But the word we used in the interview was “read” and what may have changed is that people no longer read journals, but they do “follow” them. It is an interesting term. If I say I “follow” a particular author (let’s say of works of fiction), e.g., Elena Ferrante, would you assume I read all of her books, or just keep track of what she has published, and perhaps read reviews?

      My comment about abstracts comes from the presentation at ALPSP (and my subsequent interview) of Anurag Acharya. He suggests this as a way to feed the workflow. It wasn’t so much a suggestion to “remove technical detail” as “add keys that provide accessibility to non-specialists”.


      • Yes, I commented on Anurag’s suggestion, over at TSK. The concept structure of science is a subfield of mine (my Ph.D. is in analytic philosophy of science), especially in the context of discovery and the diffusion of knowledge. So I am very interested in your idea of keys that provide accessibility to non-specialists. Can you elaborate on that? What might these keys look like?


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