Friday, March 1, 2013

Puzzled about online first and print publication in different years

Recently I noticed a slightly confusing aspect of the move towards online first or early view publishing of scientific papers. It is about how to cite a paper. It was all easier when journals were simply a batch of print issues collecting dust on a library shelf; you had the time between acceptance and print, when you would cite the paper as
Blinckhorn N, in press. Molecular phylogeny of the genus Planta (Plantaceae). Some Botanical Journal.
and then you had the time after print, when it would change to
Blinckhorn N, 2002. Molecular phylogeny of the genus Planta (Plantaceae). Some Botanical Journal 19: 34-41.
(That or very similar is how we write reference lists in my area. It might be different in yours but the principle is the same everywhere.)

Now, however, papers actually have two dates of publication, once as online first or early view when they appear as PDFs on the journal's website and then again when they are finally printed, and the problem is really what to do when the two publication dates are in different years. In the above case, the researcher might want to update their staff website or publication list, or a colleague could decide to cite their paper, once it is available online. They would then write something like this:
Blinckhorn N, 2012. Molecular phylogeny of the genus Planta (Plantaceae). Some Botanical Journal. DOI: 00.0000/sbj.0000
It was published in 2012, you can cite it, and the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) allows you to find it online. But then a few months later, the paper comes out in print. It now occupies page numbers in a certain issue of the journal and if somebody wants to cite it in it is suddenly
Blinckhorn N, 2013. Molecular phylogeny of the genus Planta (Plantaceae). Some Botanical Journal 30: 107-114.
So, what is it, 2012 or 2013? Will that cause confusion? Speaking for myself, I think it already has caused me some in a few cases. And consider the not infrequent cases where a funding agency or employer wants a scientist to submit a list of their publications "in the last five years". How about counting the same paper as published (online first) in 2012 when asked for such a list in 2012 and as published (in print) in 2013 when asked for such a list in 2018, whatever serves you best at any given moment?

As more journals move to online only, this will become less of an issue because they will only have one publication date again.


  1. This also raises a question about the formal date of publication of a new taxon.

  2. Good point, but I assume there will be a clear rule for that depending on whether the relevant code of nomenclature still requires a print version to exist or not. In the latter case, I guess it would be the online first publication that counts?


    This has come up, and the online first publication seems to have been accepted. This is a situation where a genus was described using an unavailable name. This was discovered. The usual professional courtesy of informing the describer was not followed, and a replacement name proposed online. The original describer objected, but was not successful. I'm not able to pull the needed references up on line. They are given in the link.

  4. Thanks for the post. i have the same question. See statements from some journals I found:
    "The online first release date serves as the official date of publication."
    " with the official publication date being the date of the manuscript's first online posting"

    However, this is not quite the same for some other journals. Take an article of mine as an example. It was published online in 2011, but only appeared in the printed version in 2013. The citation provided at the journal site uses 2013 as the date:
    Zhang, G. and Weirauch, C. (2013), Sticky predators: a comparative study of sticky glands in harpactorine assassin bugs (Insecta: Hemiptera: Reduviidae). Acta Zoologica, 94: 1–10. doi: 10.1111/j.1463-6395.2011.00522.x (click on 'how to cite')

    1. See more here:
      "it would be incorrect to cite the article by full reference with usual bibliographic info with a 2004 date "