Cornell University

A requiem for the reprint

This is the Friday Afternoon Mycologist
One of my favorite things is a 161 page reprint of a 1929 paper by D.H. Linder published in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, called “A monograph of Helicosporous Hyphomycetes.” It has a brown paper cover, and when I got it the signatures had not yet been cut; the book had never been read or used. With wonderful drawings grouped at the back, it is a relic of a different time. The title part of the cover of Linder's monograph It was published by the author’s institution, before scientific publishing was a big commercial concern. Over the years, I have seen many copies, some with the original paper cover, many rebound, some immaculate, others obviously heavily used, some autographed by the author. Imagine Dr. Linder receiving reprint request cards (no one would have dared use his first name) and responding with this impressive tome. Imagine getting this present in the mail, months after requesting it. Unlike most mycological books published today, Linder’s monograph was an original work, not a recapitulation or review of work published elsewhere. It was not carved into twenty smaller papers. And perhaps surprisingly, it is still useful today and is cited regularly.

I got it when I was an undergrad, and an elder colleague let me loose in his filing cabinets to remove reprints that interested me. There is nobody greedier than someone who has decided to start a reprint collection. At first, any reprint will do, even something from an unrelated field. It takes time to become discerning, to know immediately what might be useful, and what will only take up space. My reprint collection became a gluttonous monster that had to be hauled along whenever I moved. By some phagocytotic process, it absorbed several other collections from retirees and grad students who abandoned science. Now, the collection is confined to two filing cabinets, but inserting new reprints requires prying apart existing folders and cramming the new paper in… surely someone has invented some kind of special tool for this.

A plate from the Linder monographOnce you have more than 20 reprints, organization is required. Most scientists file the papers by author, which is fine if you easily remember people’s names. The maintenance of the index card catalogues associated with many reprint collections consumed many hours, typing on manual typewriters, cutting and pasting in the old fashioned, pre-computerized way. My old office had a secretary’s nook just outside. In the old days, almost every scientist had a secretary, who counted among her tasks the filing and mailing of reprints, and the maintenance of the index card reprint catalogue. Lacking my own secretary, who would intuitively know how to do these things, I tried many experimental organizational systems for my reprint collection. Eventually, the collection reached a size where any further resorting was impractical. If something wasn’t in the expected place, there were always several other files to check. Misfiled papers showed up eventually, tucked away in the wrong file following some cryptic logic.

Sending and receiving reprint requests was a solemn ritual. Postcards with preprinted return postage labels were beyond the financial means of the average graduate student, and far too impersonal. We addressed our cards by hand, and transcribed the entire citation of the article requested. It was unthinkable to write “et al.” instead of the whole list of coauthors. Omitting the title was a sacrilege. And when the reprints finally arrived, usually addressed to Dr. FAM (although I had no such credentials), there was always a guilty thrill… should I write back and tell them?

Photocopies were never as satisfying as real reprints. For one thing, we had to pay for our own photocopies. Each grad student had a counter that plugged into the photocopier. We became adept at the subtleties of page reduction and squashing two pages onto one, before photocopiers did this automatically. Each page was 5 cents. For anything longer than five pages, a real reprint saved money, not to mention the infinitely higher aesthetic quality.

As photocopiers became cheaper and better, reprints started to disappear. A colleague told me that when photocopies became affordable, scientists stopped reading, planning to do that “later.” As The World’s Funniest Mycologist put it, he felt like his PhD should stand for “Doctor of Photocopying”.

We now live in a paperless scientific society and the pdf file rules the day. My laptop is crammed with them, most of which I have never read and probably never will. Now I have my own research budget but don’t spend money buying reprints or on postage to send them out (although journals try to sell me pdfs of my own work at laughable prices).

I’ve even got Linder’s 1929 monograph in pdf form. But who can be bothered to open this monster when the original thing sits on the bookshelf, still ready to serve?



5 Responses to “ A requiem for the reprint ”


Most people don't pay much attention to fungi, which include things like mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and mildews. Here at Cornell we think they're pretty fascinating. In fact, even the most disgusting foot diseases and moldy strawberries are dear to our hearts. We'd like to talk to you about fungi, so that like us, you too can tell gross stories at the dinner table. Afterwards, maybe you'll notice some things you would have overlooked before, and we think this could be good for the planet.

Kathie T. Hodge, Editor

Beneath Notice, our book of borescopic mycology.


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