28 August 2006

Abbrev. commod.

I've spent the last three of four days making revisions to my most recent manuscript, which is getting shipped overnight to the editorial office today. Yay! In doing so, however, I spent a lot of time thinking, "There must be an easier way."

First, this journal has incredibly stringent guidelines for digital art. The guidelines for their artwork are on the authors' instructions now, but I'm not sure if they were back at the beginning of the year when I first submitted the article. In any case, this meant reworking every figure for fussy things like making sure the pictures were in TIFF format rather than JPG, had a sufficient number of dots per inch, were in CYMK rather than RGB format, and various other things that matter to professional printers. Oh, and printing off a high quality copy on glossy photo paper (in case the digital versions were wonky). Tedious, but fortunately, it didn't take as long as I was fearing.

Second, I spent a fair amount of time worrying about journal abbreviations. For those of you who are not regular readers of scientific journals, referencing is a big deal in several ways. Highly referenced papers are indicative of important findings, and in some places, can be used as evidence for things like promotion. Heck, that I had papers referencing my work was important in proving that I was a bona fide international scientist when I was applying for premanent residency in the United States.

Making sure the reference list is correct is one of the most tedious portions of the writing and proofing process.

Part of this tediousness is that different journals have different rules for referencing. Each one is a punctuation nightmare. For instance, here's how one of my papers might look if it was cited in The Biological Bulletin:

Faulkes, Z. 2006. Digging mechanisms and substrate preferences of shovel nosed lobsters, Ibacus peronii (Decapoda: Scyllaridae). J. Crust. Biol. 26: 69-72.

Here's the same one as it would appear in Brain, Behavior and Evolution:

Faulkes Z (2006) Digging mechanisms and substrate preferences of shovel nosed lobsters, Ibacus peronii (Decapoda: Scyllaridae). J Crust Biol 26:69-72.

And here it is in The Journal of Experimental Biology:

Faulkes, Z. (2006). Digging mechanisms and substrate preferences of shovel nosed lobsters, Ibacus peronii (Decapoda: Scyllaridae). Journal of Crustacean Biology 26, 69-72.

Each one is just a little bit different. But I want to draw your attention in particular to the name of the journal this article was published in. I daresay that few journals list the entire name of a journal in the references; instead, most use some sort of abbreviation. I think the original idea was to cut down on the number of printed pages, and possibly even the number of letters a typesetter had to set. Before the advent of computers, typesetting was a highly specialized craft.

Looking above, you'll notice that one journal abbreviates with periods, another without.

That's the easy difference.

But think about this a little further. This journal has a fairly struaghtforward name. Still, why is it "J Crust Biol" instead of "J Crust Bio" (no "L" at the end)? For that matter, how do you decide how to abbreviate some really obscure journal, or one that is published in a foreign language?

It turns out that there are massive lists of journal title abbreviations. Actually, make that competing lists of abbreviations. There's one standard called MEDLINE for medical related journals. There's an abbreviation standard that used to be called ISI. Apparently there is a World List of Scientific Periodicals which also has abbreviations. And those are just a few that I'm aware of from my dealings in biology. Heaven only knows what the chemists or engineers do, let alone people in the humanities.

The journal that I am submitting to asks for BIOSIS abbreviations (except they list a few exceptions to the way BIOSIS abbreviates, adding even more complexity).

How do you get a list of BIOSIS journal abbreviations?

You have to buy it.

This is around the point where my head starts to hurt. It strikes me as completely bizarre that abbreviations are a commodity (hence my title for this entry).

Many have remarked on how more and more, people are being restricted from doing things because of intellectual property concerns. For an excellent discussion of this, you could do worse than to listen to "Free Culture" presentation by Lawrence Lessig, then head over the Creative Commons website.

Science is supposed to have been about sharing of ideas. Obviously, there are various limits to that, but I'm still trying to figure out how we've ended up in the weird situation where I can't get information I need to write a paper properly, or even figure out what journal something was published in if it was abbreviated.

Why make something harder to understand by using cryptic abbreviations? Are there still some great hidden advantage to using abbreviations in the digital age? Do we save that many pages, or time, or effort?

Journal abbreviations are broken.

One solution is blindingly obvious, of course. Don't abbreviate journal titles. But are editors and publishers willing to take the lead?

Coming soon: My rant against "et al."

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