Why do we have volumes, issues, and page numbers?

Now that almost all academic publishing has moved online, there are a lot of assumptions that start to look silly with time. The whole notion of a “Periodical” doesn’t make much sense. Traditionally it meant articles that were bound together and published on a regular interval (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly). The reason they were published on a schedule is that they were bound together as a block of paper, and then those packages were physically shipped to readers. We still cling to this publishing culture in many ways.

These bound issues of a journal were a very strong part of my academic career. When I was in graduate school I would stop by the mathematics library every day and visit the rack against the wall to see what issues had just arrived. That was how you found out about most new mathematical research (that photo below is the room in Altgeld Hall at the University of Illinois).

Now that we no longer bind things into issues, we still cling to the periodic publication of “issues” of journals. This is baked into the review process for the new journal Communications in Cryptology, but it’s also baked into the culture of IACR Transactions on Symmetric Cryptology (ToSC) and IACR Transactions on Cryptographic Hardware and Embedded Systems (TCHES). Papers are submitted on a deadline for an issue, and then the papers for that issue are reviewed by a committee, producing a list of accepted papers for the issue as a synchronous action.

Because we are using this method of reviewing, it makes some sense for us to talk about “issues” of a journal. The fact remains that once a paper is accepted, the author(s) still have to produce their final version and go through a copy editing phase. There’s no particular reason for this to proceed on a synchronous schedule for the issue, so it’s possible that one paper in the issue might be published before another. Journal issues need not operate like trains, with all of the cars showing up at the same time. For some reason we persist with this.

Then there is the issue of why we have “volumes”. Why would we collect several issues together into a volume? Traditionally the notion of a “volume” corresponds to the year that it is published ToSC and TCHES even number their volumes as the year, but oddly some papers in volume 2023 were published in 2022 and Volume 2019, Issue 4 of ToSC was published in 2020. I guess since volumes don’t align exactly to years, we shouldn’t number them by the year. In fact, I would argue that we don’t need volumes at all since volume # and year # are redundant in a bibliographic reference.

Then there is the issue of why we have “Issue numbers”. ToSC had Volume 2020, Issue 1 but then also Volume 2020 “Special Issue 1”. I guess that means Issue 1 was “not special”, and Issue 2 was actually Issue 3. 😕

Then there is the issue of why we have page numbers. In the old days it was important to be able to find the paper in a huge bound volume. You want to immediately turn to the paper in that big clunky book.

Some journals have innovated in this space to have a “paper number” in the issue instead of page numbers, but that doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to me. Are the papers supposed to be read sequentially or individually? They aren’t chapters in a narrative book – they are independent authored works. Many authors have been arguing that we should list authors in random order on a paper rather than alphabetically, because Anthony Aardvark would always be listed as “first author”. In some fields joint authors are listed alphabetically unless there is a difference in their levels of contribution. Following the same line of reasoning as random author order, papers could be listed in the table of contents or the web page in random order each time.

I would argue that all of these sequential identifiers are unnecessary in today’s world. What you need to identify a journal article is the URL for the article. Unfortunately a lot of web culture doesn’t really believe in persistent URLs, so the notion of a DOI was invented as a persistent unique identifier for the paper. The DOI can always be tacked onto the end of https://doi.org/ to get a redirection to the current URL for the paper. This DOI is really the only thing you need to identify and locate a paper. That’s why

You should always include a DOI in a bibliographic reference!

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One Response to Why do we have volumes, issues, and page numbers?

  1. @mccurleyRegarding Volume Numbers, TCHES numbers them according to the conference the papers will be presented at, while ToSC numbers them according to publication year.The Special Issues of ToSC in 2020 was dedicated to a specific topic (NIST lightweight candidates) with a slightly different editorial board. I think it makes sense to keep those even with digital publishing (IACR CiC mentioned doing Special Issues for some conferences, I don't known if it's still planned).

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