Going Digital: The Future of Reprints?

reprints1.jpgOne of the great things about law review articles is that you can order a batch of reprints — separately-bound copies of your article that you can send out to a list of your colleagues. I have a large and growing database of various professors, policymakers, journalists, and others who receive copies of my articles — a fact that is not without some irony, since many of these people are in the information privacy law field, and I have written extensively on the problems posed by databases. Thus, ironically, I maintain a database with one of the most extensive collections of people who criticize databases.

It is common practice among law professors to send out reprints widely, as this is a way to present one’s scholarship to others in a highly-readable format. But reprints come at a considerable cost. Recently, I got the price quote for a reprint order for a soon-to-be-published article. Under the pricing scheme, I get 40 free reprints, but that’s not nearly enough for my database, which includes hundreds of people. For 200 extra reprints, it would cost about $744 and for 400 extra it would cost $1059. Wow! I nearly had a heart attack . . . and I’m not even the one paying the bill — my school picks up the tab. Anyway, if I handed a bill for over $1000 to my dean, the keys to my office might not work the next day. Plus, there’s the cost of postage, envelopes, and stationary.

So here’s my idea. I’m thinking of moving toward a system of electronic reprints. I could send out a PDF version of the final article in an email to everybody in my database. In other words, I’d shift from being a junk mailer to a spammer. . . .

In my email, I’d include the text of the letter I would have sent to accompany the reprint, attach the article in PDF format, and possibly include a link to the final version of the paper on SSRN. I’d still order some reprints — about 50 to 100 — and offer to send hard copies of the reprints to anybody who requested them. My guess is that I’d get a few people requesting the actual reprint, but most people interested in reading the article would just print it out from the attached digital version.

The pros to moving in this direction are:

(1) It’s much cheaper.

(2) There’s less wasted paper. Many reprints wind up in the trash. Under the digital system, only those who really are interested in the article will print it out.

(3) It’s much easier to send out a reprint — no signing hundreds of letters.


(1) Some people might really prefer reading the reprint rather than a printed-out version in the same formatting. And they might feel that it is an imposition to ask for a reprint. Or perhaps too many would ask for the actual reprint. Supplies would be low, and reprints cannot be ordered after the article is printed.

(2) Some people might find the email to be an annoyance. People are used to the current practice of sending physical copies, so they might not mind receiving something in the mail. I fear, however, that because people might not be accustomed to receiving a reprint by email, they might take offense to it. For some (hopefully not many), the email may add further unwanted clutter to their already burgeoning email inbox.

So I pose the question: Should I move to a digital reprint system? For those who receive reprints in the mail, would you have a strong preference for reading the actual reprint as opposed to a printed-out copy with the same formatting? Do you even read the reprints you receive?

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11 Responses

  1. I think long attachments in bulk mailings are Not Nice. It can have nasty effect on recipient email systems if they get several. And if everyone starts doing it….

    No, if you’re going to go digital, include a link to an online copy, not an attachment.

    I understand the downside: people may be less likely to click through than look at an attachment, which is one reason why I haven’t done this yet. But I think mass mailing of huge attachments is to be avoided.

  2. Eric Goldman says:

    Wow, being a direct marketer is filled with lots od difficult choices! Eric.

  3. Alan says:

    Unfortunately, you may be behind the curve on this one. I just got page proofs for a Springer article, and THEY CHARGE FOR ELECTRONIC COPIES! They included an order form on which I could order digital reprints (pdfs) at only slightly less than the cost of paper reprints. I’m not sure what the protection mechanism is (though circumventing it would likely violate the DMCA), and one can always download the article from a database later (Lexis, ProQuest) and email it around. My guess is that we’ll see much more of that.

    MF’s idea of linking to an electronic copy will only work for people who have access to the resource. Certainly lawyers will generally have access to Lexis and Westlaw, and academics will have access to other full-text databases. But some policy-oriented folks and practitioners will not have access to the academic full-text databases (which is where most all the peer-reviewed articles go). Perhaps ssrn would work, but I’m not sure if publishers will allow final electronic reprints to be re-published there.

    And for what it’s worth, I really like paper reprints. And until I get a double-sided printer, I don’t especially like printing out long articles. Maybe the best route is to send paper to the audience you’re trying to grow, e-copies to those you think will want a copy and don’t have electronic access, and mere notices to those you think will seek out the article.

  4. Bruce says:

    It’s sort of related to your Con #1, but I think even favorably disposed people may be less likely to read a PDF than a reprint. Put something nicely printed (with a fancy cover and all) in front of me and I’ll feel an irresistable urge to read it (particularly if other work is pressing). But if I have to take even a few small steps (open, print, staple), I’ll keep putting it off.

    On the circumvention front, depends on who owns the copyright. If you own the copyright to your own article, you can circumvent to your heart’s content. It’s not really circumventing in that case, it’s more venting.

  5. joe patent says:


    Wouldn’t your suggestion (“one can always download the article from a database later (Lexis, ProQuest) and email it around”) violate a user agreement of Lexis?

    Generally, if the author still retains the copyright in the article, could you get the pdf printed at a local printshop (e.g., Kinko’s) on decent paper and mail that? Perhaps the cost will be lower.

    I agree with the other posters that a hardcopy is often more enjoyable (and easier) to read. Easier to read on the Metro or while walking to class.

    At the same time, filing and organizing pdfs makes much more sense these days.

  6. I always negotiate to retain copyright in my work, and when I cannot, I try to negotiate the right to distribute the work on SSRN, on my website, or in electronic form. Therefore, none of the copyright issues or Lexis/Westlaw agreement issues are really pertinent unless authors haven’t been able to negotiate the rights in their work with the law reviews.

    I’d like to keep the focus on the question of what people would prefer. Do people still want to receive the actual reprint? It seems like a very expensive luxury, which is why it might be better to move to a digital reprint system — unless there are some very strong preferences for physical reprints or other reasons why the digital article distribution system is problematic.

    I agree with Michael Froomkin that it is best to send links rather than attachments so as not to clog up people’s email.

  7. geoff manne says:

    I have 3 words for you: Google Desktop Search. Who wants paper copies when you can archive and search through an electronic copy upon receipt (and we are all hooked up to limitless servers, right?) and make much more effective use of the article (a benefit which inures to both the recipient and the sender). I may continue to send out paper reprints because the norm has not (yet) shifted, but I certainly would prefer receiving electronic ones.

  8. Joe Patent says:

    A variation of Eric’s suggestion:

    Send a hardcopy to select recipients followed (a week or two later) by an e-mail including a link or attachment of the electronic version of the article. In the e-mail, you can include a note to the effect of “This is an electronic version (for your convenience) of the hardcopy you should have received already.”

    Just e-mailing to everyone shifts the costs (e.g., time, cost, and annoyance of printing) to your readers. I’m on the younger side and I still prefer to read the hard copy version of a long article.

    The question is what portion of your recipients are the ones likely print the article.

  9. Joe,

    One of the primary reasons for moving to a digital system is to avoid the very extensive cost of ordering hundreds of reprints and mailing them out. Therefore, to send hardcopies first and then offer electronic versions later defeats a lot of the purpose.

    Reprints cost a law school quite a bit of money. GW has around 80 faculty members. Many write multiple articles each year. Let’s say we produce 100 articles per year. With a reprint bill such as what I am facing for the piece I discuss in my post, that’s about $1000 per article, or $100,000 for the school to pay (not including postage, envelopes, and stationary). Now, $1000 is unusually high for a reprint order, but more typical figures in the $500 to $700 range still end up costing a school a lot of money.

    You’re right that some of the costs are shifted when people have to print out papers, but it is considerably cheaper this way. With any extensive mailing of reprints, there are only a subset who actually are interested in reading them. A lot of reprints thus wind up going to waste. With the printing out of papers, only those interested in reading the paper will print it out. When you’ve got a mailing list with hundreds of names on it like mine, the difference in total cost can be significant. Ultimately, if most law professors move toward a digital system, then it will cost law schools considerably less.

  10. John Oberdiek says:

    I think its worth noting that Philosophy & Public Affairs, perhaps the premier journal in moral and political philosophy, has already made the switch to PDF reprints.

  11. Chad Dunlap says:

    One thing you might want to consider is to send a letter via snail mail to all the entries in your database asking them if they would like an electronic version or paper version of your articles. Once you have this information you could create another table in your database to place the answer.

    This might reduce the number of hard copies you need to order and not offend anyone by sending them a PDF when they really want a paper copy.

    Just an idea.