The (US) Association of Research Libraries released a few days ago a report entitled “The E-only Tipping Point for Journals: What’s Ahead in the Print-to-Electronic Transition Zone” (pdf). It makes the argument that sooner or later every publisher will turn to an electronic-only format in the face of rising (relative) costs of print formats. Currently, we are in a transition period where most journals went from print-only to print and electronic, and it is predicted that with 5 to 10 years, the printed journals will be only from the most specialized and small ones who cannot afford the fix cost of setting up the electronic editions. Another feature of the transition is the large proportion of new journals that do not even bother with a print edition.
This discussion largely pertains to university press publishing, but can probably be extended to commercial publishing. Indeed, commercial publishers show signs that they want to discourage print editions, either through their subscription price structure or by modifying subscriptions to be by default electronic-only. In Economics, the dissemination of research, in terms of readership, is dominated by pre-prints (working or discussion papers) that have gone all electronic for some time now, with only few exceptions. As far as I know, nobody regrets the period of the all printed working papers: they were difficult to obtain unless you were in the “club”, only few institutions had a systematic (but costly) way to disseminate them, and only established researchers had any chance of being read through this medium. People would even travel to some libraries to consult their working paper collections. Today, research is much more widely disseminated and researchers from outside the elite institutions have a better chance to follow and contribute to the research frontier. We hope RePEc has contributed to this democratization. Never has been the use of electronic pre-prints as widespread as now, possibly at the cost of reducing journals to historical records of research. Well, journals also act as gateways through peer-review, but you sometimes have to wonder about this as well when hearing all the complaints about this process.
A few interesting numbers from the study: 60% of 20,000 per-reviewed journals are available in electronic format, library-provided electronic editions are at least ten times more read than print ones, only 30% of library subscriptions are print only.