A friend recently asked me this question:

“Why don’t they sell scientific journals in shops? That way, people could find out what science is going on.”

 The idea was quite bizarre to my close-minded scientific head, and about a dozen potential replies circled my head. “Most people wouldn’t understand it”, “academic papers are not written for mass consumption”, “we don’t need to, we have science journalism in mainstream media” and “there would just be too much stuff“.

In the end, I settled for “it’s all digital now”, which is true for the vast majority of scientific publishing – papers are increasingly published, purchased and consumed in digital format, with the sight of the actual physical print a rarity in most academic departments.

But this got me thinking. Why not? People have the right to buy scientific journals, particularly if they live in a country where research programmes are heavily funded by public entities – in fact, some people are arguing that they shouldn’t have to pay at all. But could we do this with old-fashioned print version of journals? Could we put them in a shop? Just how much space would it take?

To find this out, we need to be a bit ingenious with numbers. According to the STM 2012 report on scholarly publishing, there were 1.8 million peer-reviewed papers published in 2012. Using growth rates estimated from a couple of sources, that number should hit around 2 million in 2014. If we presume our humble local magazine shop stocks these journals in the normal fashion, a new one every week, we are dealing with 38,462 articles a week.

How much paper is that? A peer-reviewed article is typically between 3,000 and 10,000 words and following a completely unscientific survey of a few representative journals I had lying around (Nature, Science, PNAS) the going rate seems to be 800-1000 words per page, pictures and all. This works out at an average of 7.22 pages per article, as a very rough guess. Multiplying that by the number of weekly articles our shop would need to stock, we get 277,781 pages, and if we add covers, editorials and advertisement we can reasonably round it up to 300,000 weekly pages being churned out.

Now the big question is whether our imaginary shop can actually hold that much content. With a typical magazine format of 120 pages in 12 x 28cm size, we are dealing with 2,500 unique weekly publications. Of course, we want to stock more than one copy of each, so 50,000 issues is not unreasonable. How much space would that take? At 8.50 m3 it would just about fit into a large transit van. Of course, if you actually want to be able to rifle through the contents, our shop would need a considerable floor space. If we display the journals face-on, as they typically are in book stores, it would need about 500 m of shelf space.

Assuming absolutely no backlog and definitely not stocking the previous week’s edition, a very large, multi-storied shop could just about manage that. And it probably wouldn’t have room for National Geographic.

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For numbers of scholarly articles published, this article by Larsen & von Ins (2010), as well as reports by STM and the Royal Society were particularly helpful.  

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