Where did the practice of ‘abstracts’ come from?

Academic authors in the twenty-first century have become used to submitting an ‘abstract’ of their paper alongside the full text – but abstracts were originally something written by another person.

Secretarial summaries

The practice of ‘abstracts’ arose from a recognition of the value of providing short summaries of a paper, for the benefit of those people who were not able to access the full original.For instance, in the late 18th century, the Royal Society used the term ‘abstract’ to describe the summary of a paper that was written into the minute-books by the secretary after a paper had been read out loud at a meeting. Continue reading “Where did the practice of ‘abstracts’ come from?”

1892: Changes to the reading of papers

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the weekly meetings of the Royal Society were important sites for the communication of scientific knowledge. The papers presented at the meeting were almost all published in the Society’s Transactions, and from the 1850s they were at least all printed as abstracts in the Proceedings of the Society. The interplay between the meetings and publication was important as the meetings were the first public presentation of a paper, which might not appear in print for several months. Thus, those attending the meeting were aware of the results of new experiments or hear first about a new species before any formal publication. Scientific weeklies and newspapers might have communicated in short what was presented at the Society’s meeting, providing a condensed version of a paper read. The actual published paper in Transactions was thus potentially preceded by considerable interest and discussion. Despite the fact that there was increasing pressure to reform the meetings due to competition from other modes of scientific print, Society meetings retained their primacy throughout this period. This changed in 1892 when the Society’s Standing Orders stated that even if a paper’s title was read only, a paper could be considered for publication. Of the communication that would be read there was now to be a distinction between papers which ‘the author is prepared to illustrate by experiments, diagrams &c., or which is likely to give rise to discussion’. This marked a shift since it meant that a proportion of the papers accepted for publication would be read at a meeting, rather than a proportion of the papers read at the meeting being published, as was the previous practice. This was an important moment, representing a tacit acknowledgement of the subordination of meetings and the primacy of print publication.

Source: Council Meeting Papaers/6: 18 February 1892, p. 398-400, Royal Society Archives, London.