International Cooperation in Physics Abstracting
In this paper a short survey will be made of the activities of the I.C.S.U. Abstracting Board (International Council of Scientific Unions) as seen from the point of view of Physics Abstracts, one of the two original member journals of the Board, with some comments on the effectiveness of these activities, and some suggestions for future development.
It will be useful first to recall the circumstances of the Board’s foundation. At the Unesco Conference on Scientific Abstracting in Paris in 1949, a plan for a single universal international abstracting service had been rejected as impracticable at the present time. A more modest proposal, for the formation of a single international physics abstracting journal by the amalgamation of the only two journals dealing with this subject then existing was referred to a committee of the International Union of Physics. This committee reached the important conclusion that, however attractive might be the idea of a single international abstracting organization for physics, it was necessary, at the present time, for abstracting journals to be available in three or four different languages, to serve the interests of different language groups (English, Romance, Teutonic, etc.). It was recognised, in fact, that whatever facility the average scientist might have for reading original work in a foreign language, his reference book of compact information, with indexes in which the significance of an entry might often depend on a single word, had to be in a language very familiar to him. The committee was not able to recommend, at the present time, any practicable steps for the production and simultaneous publication in several languages of a single physics abstracting journal, though it expressed the hope that such a development might become possible in the future. It did, however, recommend the foundation and recognition by I.C.S.U. of a Board to assist the work of the existing physics abstracting organizations, both by encouraging and facilitating any joint action or mutual help which they might develop, and by its own independent activities, either independently conceived
B.M.CROWTHER Science Abstracts, The Institution of Electrical Engineers, London.
or suggested by the abstracting organizations. The Board would extend its recognition to only one physics abstracting journal in each language group, and thus try to preserve the relatively favourable circumstances at the time of its inception by discouraging the formation of directly competing journals.
The Board thus undertook the experiment, in a single subject field, of seeing to what extent an organic growth might develop, in a favourable atmosphere, between existing well-established institutions. Any attempt to impose a uniform pattern of behaviour on the member journals was explicitly excluded; it would have to grow, if at all, from the mutual agreement of the member journals, who were left to carry on their independent existence on the basis of whatever material resources they could command.
As will appear below, the degree of international cooperation which has developed is not sensational. In assessing its significance, it must be borne in mind that the Board had practically no financial backing, which set a strict limit on its executive activities; and that the abstracting organizations retained undiminished, throughout the period under consideration, all the major pre-occupations associated with the publication of an abstracting journal. In the case of Physics Abstracts, and, I have no doubt, the other organizations also, these were severe, arising primarily out of the rapid and continuing growth in volume and complexity of scientific publication. What has been achieved, therefore, has arisen from “spare time” work, and needs to be judged on that basis; the questions to be answered do not relate only to the degree of material advantage already gained, but also to the possibilities for the future, and to the requirements which experience has shown to be necessary.
The two founder member journals of the Board were: the Bulletin Analytique (later Bulletin Signaletique), published in Paris by the Service de Documentation of the Conseil National du Recherche Scientifique; and Physics Abstracts, published in London by The Institution of Electrical Engineers with the support of the British and American Physical Societies and the Institute of Physics. The Bulletin Analytique covered other sciences as well as physics, while Physics Abstracts is produced in conjunction with Electrical Engineering Abstracts; so that in each case the journals had other interests than physics alone. At the time of the foundation of the Board, these were the only two abstracting journals dealing with the whole field of physics. At a later stage, the German Physikalische Berichte reappeared, after the interruption of its publication in 1945, and this journal also was admitted to membership of the Board. The adherence of the Russian Institute of Scientific Information to the Board has occurred too recently for any significant developments to have taken place, save in the exchange of proof copies of periodicals. Other abstracting journals,
not dealing with the abstracting of physics, who have been invited to join the Board, will not be considered in this survey.
Among the first acts after the establishment of the Board was to arrange for the member journals to exchange copies of their respective publications, and to grant general permission for the reprinting of abstracts. For reasons which will be discussed later, Physics Abstracts has not, up to now, made use of this. Also exchanged were lists of periodicals being regularly scanned for physics articles, and this brought to light a number of unfamiliar titles, about which we made enquiries, and also about other titles which had come to our notice through other channels; we received similar enquiries from the other member journals. These enquiries have continued from time to time, and it has been most valuable to be able to obtain a “professional” opinion on the status and contents of a periodical from someone engaged on the same business as oneself, who by proximity has better opportunities for becoming familiar with it and possibly establishing personal contacts with the editor. The standards of selection and the range of subjects covered are not necessarily identical in all respects for the member journals, so that in many cases it has in the end been necessary to form one’s own judgement by inspection of sample copies; but there have been numerous occasions when we have had excellent advice from our colleagues which has saved us a great deal of trouble.
The same sort of service has also been supplied on occasion by the executive office of the Board, and I think that this might be developed to a very valuable extent, if the Board’s resources were increased, particularly by making use of contacts through the National Committees of Physics in somewhat remote areas such as South America, to get reliable information of useful publications in physics.
The Board has been very useful to us in a few instances by approaching publishers with a request for copies of their periodicals for abstracting, and the extra weight given to our request by the official backing of the Board has been unmistakable. The best that the Board could achieve in one case was a 10% reduction in subscription rate, but this represented no mean concession from this particular publisher!
The discovery, appraisal and acquisition of regularly appearing periodicals, despite their ever increasing number, presents fewer problems compared to the perplexities raised by the great variety and number of so-called “non-periodical” publications and “semi-published” documents. Even if we set aside such publications as books and monographs by single authors, and dissertations presented for university degrees, whose characteristics are fairly well established, we are still faced with a formidable volume of new publication each year pro-
duced in ways which may differ widely from the customs associated with orthodox periodical publication. The most important examples are the proceedings of scientific conferences, large and small, whose contents vary widely in importance and originality. The Board has devoted a considerable amount of discussion to these publications, and though it is no part of its function to attempt to regulate the forms of primary scientific publication, it has nevertheless been driven to make some recommendations to the International Union of Physics which it believes would be of substantial value to the scientific world generally.
To assist its member journals in abstracting these publications, the Board has begun to organize the collection and circulation of periodic lists of nonperiodical publications. This experiment has started only recently, and the proper form and a common understanding among the participants has not yet been worked out. Nevertheless, it clearly has most valuable potentialities, if it can be developed in the direction of pooling the serious professional assessments of the member journals and the Board, and not degenerate into an encyclopaedic but undigested list.
Before the formation of the Board, Physics Abstracts had been regularly receiving page proofs of several British physics periodicals (arrangements made with the American Institute of Physics are described later). No attempt had been made to acquire the same privilege from continental publishers. We now receive proof copies of some 40 physics periodicals from France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, and Russia, as a direct result of approaches made either by the Secretary of the Board, or by the member journals on behalf of the Board, and in return have made available to the other member journals proof copies of about a dozen British periodicals. This wholesale interchange of proofs could almost certainly not have been achieved without the intervention of the Board, since in many cases it needed a personal approach to the publishing organization to explain the purpose of the request and to give reassurances as to the standing of the recipients. In the case of one publishing organization, which appeared to be withholding its permission unreasonably, the Board and the member journals considered the possibility of conducting, with due publicity, a boycott on the abstracting of the periodicals concerned; whether this would have been effective cannot be said, for the controversy was founded on a misunderstanding, and it was eventually happily resolved.
In the provision of proof copies of physics periodicals, therefore, the Board and the other member journals have been of definite benefit to Physics Abstracts. The proofs are received anything from a few days to many weeks before the published periodical, and therefore vary greatly in usefulness; further, a few of
them are so incomplete and subject to alterations and re-arrangements before publication as to be unusable. A little further organization on the part of the member journals would extend the value of this service. All the British proofs are distributed through the Physics Abstracts office, where they are inspected before being passed on, so that deficiencies can be remedied without delay; identification details are added, if necessary (since proofs are often not titled), and post-proof alterations of which the editors inform us are passed on to the member journals. This is rendered easier by the fact that all these British periodicals are published in London; but in any case such an inspection near the source is thought to be worth a one- or two-day delay. Our continental proofs come from a variety of sources, and in any particular instance of deficiency we are usually uncertain where to enquire. It would, I believe, be well worth while for all proofs to be “vetted” before distribution by the responsible member journals, since they need to make the inspection in any case for their own purposes.
Abstracting from proof copies of periodicals has its attendant risks, and for Physics Abstracts we take the precaution of confirming the essential details of the articles from the published copy of the periodical just before publishing our abstracts. Occasionally we find an article has been substituted for another, more frequently that a correction has been made in the spelling of an author’s name. These occurrences are rare enough, and their very rarity makes it unrealistic to expect the editor to inform us unfailingly when he makes such a change after sending the proof. This check should need to be done only once for each proof, but at present each member journal must make its own.
Arrangements with the American Institute of Physics had taken the form, before the formation of the Board, of sending by air mail clippings from the proofs of the titles and abstracts of the articles in their periodicals, since to send the whole text by air mail would have been prohibitively expensive. These “proof clippings” have proved very satisfactory to Physics Abstracts in the great majority of cases, for which credit must be given to the editors of the journals and to the staff of the Institute responsible for making them up. For a period of about three years, the benefit of this service rendered by the Institute was extended to the Bulletin Analytique by forwarding photocopies of the clippings within about three days; these were thus received in Paris almost as soon as, and at lower cost than, a separate supply. It is believed that they were useful to the Bulletin Analytique, which publishes short indicative abstracts, but they were unacceptable to the Physikalische Berichte.
We are now receiving direct from Moscow proof copies of ten Russian physics periodicals, in return for which we send proofs of British periodicals. This exchange has arisen out of the agreement reached with Professor Serpin-
skii, of the Russian Institute of Scientific Information, at the meeting of the Board held in August, 1956. Unfortunately, up to the time of writing, it has been our experience that these proofs arrive, in general, after the published copies purchased through ordinary commercial channels. It is to be hoped that this is due only to initial difficulties, as needless to say proof copies are only valuable if they are received well in advance. Before this service was inaugurated, single proof copies of these periodicals were sent to the office of the Board in Paris; there they were microfilmed and sent to the member journals. I regret to say that this painstaking service went for nothing as far as Physics Abstracts was concerned; the impossibility of using microfilm in its original form, and the expense of making enlargements, led us to discard them in favour of the published copy. Microfilm seems to us only to be justified for abstracting purposes pure and simple when the original is unobtainable.
There has been perennial discussion at meetings of the editors on the question of adopting a uniform style for the details of abstracts—the form of journal reference, and so forth—and unifying the systems of classification and indexing used for the abstracts. Progress has been very slow, no doubt because none of the participants had a strong conviction that any very good purpose would be served. It was evident that no one of the existing systems of classification is outstandingly better than the others, and insofar as the readers of the abstracting journals on the whole consult only one publication, it would not seem to concern them whether the classification system of the others is different. Nevertheless, it was thought to be worth attempting to reach agreement on a common order of subject “chapters” for the arrangement of the abstracts in the individual issues of the journals, as a first step towards a possible agreement on more detailed subdivisions. Such an arrangement of subjects, if it were reasonably sensible, might become fairly widely adopted for a number of purposes in the world of physics, and play quite a useful administrative role. I do not think there is any very sanguine belief that agreement on and adoption of a detailed “classification” system in the documentation sense would be achieved; it was simply an attempt to see whether we could agree to arrange our subjects in the same general order. This very modest attempt is rather crucial, because if agreement cannot be reached at this level, it is clearly waste of time to discuss any more ambitious scheme. The present situation is that agreement in principle has been reached on an order of subject “chapters” somewhat similar to that of the Universal Decimal Classification, and we want to-see whether the Federation International de Documentation will consent to make some corresponding revision of the U.D.C. The changes in the subject groupings of the member journals, if they materialize, will take place only slowly, but it seems hopeful that they will gradually fall into line with each other.
We have discussed two other small details of the same character; the adoption of a common set of abbreviations for the names of periodicals; and of a uniform system of transliteration of Cyrillic characters. Here again, no short-term benefit to the abstracting journals can be expected, and the stimulus is partly altruistic—if the abstracting journals can give a lead, there is an increased possibility that uniform codes for these two matters may eventually be adopted throughout a considerable part of the scientific world. The former of these may not be very important, and there are likely always to be local variations; but the standardization of a system of transliteration of Russian authors’ names, or at least the reduction of the number of alternative systems in use to no more than two, is rather an urgent matter for scientific documentation, even if only a minor one. Authors’ names get into circulation in a variety of ways, and if the transliterations are not the same, the differences persist as the names are copied from reference to reference; the abstracting organizations notice the discrepancies in their indexes, but in many cases have no means of determining the original form of the name. The I.C.S.U. Abstracting Board and its member journals are agreed on the value of adopting a uniform system, and I hope before long they will have some proposals to announce.
The Publications Committee of the International Union of Physics has expressed interest in these discussions of the Board, and the way seems favourable for the adoption by the Union of conclusions reached unanimously by the Board on the above subjects, for recommendation to the National Committees and the editors of physics periodicals. This is not within the province of the Board, but it gives encouragement to our discussions.
The noticeable feature of this survey is the absence of any move by the abstracting organizations themselves to share the actual work of abstracting. It will be recalled that the Board at its inception forswore any intentions of imposing such co-operation on the member journals; and I think their failure to take the initiative, though perhaps due partly to the natural conservatism of well-established organizations, is also a significant comment on the potential value of intimate multilateral working on an international scale, given the situation of three or more independent organizations producing journals in different languages. It is disappointing that this matter has not been discussed, as an examination on a practical basis of the possible scope and the difficulties to be anticipated would be illuminating; in its absence, we have only our own opinion to go on.
The conditions are not very favourable for the spontaneous growth of work-sharing, for there is more to the business of abstracting than the simple matter of composing the abstract, and an abstracting organization must work systematically as a fairly close-knit team. When we survey the differences in the basis
and standards of selection, appraisal, classification, type of abstract, and indexing between ourselves and our colleagues, it is not surprising that our general feeling is that, if the original material is available to us, it is more satisfactory to abstract it independently. It may be said that these differences are anomalous, as all the member-journals are supposedly doing the same job for similar groups of people; but, as this conference will doubtless demonstrate, there are as yet few generally agreed criteria for the best form which an abstracting service should take, and, in the present situation, some variety in principles and presentation is no bad thing. Whether this is accepted or not, the limit of direct cooperation under present circumstances would seem to be the translation of abstracts of selected journals provided by our colleagues; bearing in mind the pitfalls of translating concise scientific statements without benefit of context, and the additional requirement of indexing, this course has not commended itself to us.
I would make a possible exception, at the present time, for abstracts of Russian articles; as more and more Russian literature appears, it becomes increasingly difficult to cover it in the orthodox way, because of the relatively small number of competent physicists who can read Russian. In these circumstances, the translation of a French or German abstract may well be the only alternative to having no abstract at all; and a more systematic deployment of our combined resources would probably be worth organizing. A small step in this direction was taken in 1954, when it gradually became apparent that the only copy in the Western world of the 1953 volume of the Russian Zhurnal Eksperimentalnoi Teoreticheskoi Fiziki was lodged in London; Physics Abstracts was able to supply microfilm copies to the other member journals of the Board, and we also supplied copies of our abstracts, for translation if that proved the easier course. This experiment was of course unpremeditated, and was made more on the grounds of inaccessibility of material than of difficulty of abstracting; further experiments would need to be arranged in detail in advance.
From the foregoing account it will appear that the most fruitful activities of the I.C.S.U. Abstracting Board have been in fields connected with the investigation and acquisition of material for abstracting; if circumstances remain similar to the present, and there is no closer integration of the organizations producing the abstracting journals, I expect this to continue to be the case. It is not my concern here to consider what far-reaching changes in our traditional methods may be forced on us by the rapid development of science, or what greater measure of responsibility the Board may be called on to take up, but I would like to see it extend very substantially the activities it has already developed, and in so doing work out an articulate corporate policy towards scientific publication which will have a certain degree of regulating effect. In our
discussions we have discovered much common ground, and the collective opinion of the Board deserves to be heard in the interests of the individual scientific reader, whose problems are but a microcosm of those of the abstracting organizations.
In concluding my account of the benefits derived from the I.C.S.U. Abstracting Board, I should not omit to mention that the periodic meetings of the Board have afforded most profitable opportunities for discussion of matters of common concern with my colleagues of the member journals, which would otherwise not have occurred.