Pure Gold, Like in Fort Knox

by Scott McLemee on December 8, 2006

What synchronicity: In an entry posted yesterday at Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, Caleb Crain writes about getting some offprints of his article from the latest issue of American Literary History:

I don’t think the world outside academia knows what offprints are any more, if they ever did. I say this with some confidence because when I gave one to a very worldly and well-read acquaintance, he asked, a few weeks after reading it, what it was. Had I had my essay privately printed? he asked. And that was more than a decade ago. I would like to assure everyone that not even I am so nineteenth-century as to have my essays privately printed.

Offprints are unbound printed pages of an article, which a scholarly journal provides to the article’s author so that he may share them with colleagues. The protocol is — or rather, was — that when a researcher wanted to read an article that happened to appear in a journal he didn’t subscribe to, he would send a postcard to the author, care of his institutional address, asking for an offprint. And the author, as a matter of scholarly courtesy, would mail it to him free. My father is a scientist, and when I was little and collected stamps, most of them came from the postcards sent to him and the other scientists at his institution, requesting offprints. In those days, the 1970s and 1980s, the requests by and large came from developing countries, where the research institutions had less money for their libraries. The postcards came from all over the world, in other words, from countries I’d never heard of and imagined I would never see, and it gave me a thrill to see them, emblems of the glamour and global reach of the life of the mind.

Caleb includes an image of the first such postcard he ever received after publishing an article, and offers to send an offprint of his new article if you ask for one in the traditional manner. He mentions “a slight advantage to the paper copy, actually; I couldn’t get online rights for one of the images, so that picture doesn’t appear in JSTOR, only in the printed version.”



X. Trapnel 12.08.06 at 5:11 pm

I find that last bit rather sad–wouldn’t the image almost certainly be fair use? I imagine it’s just risk-aversion on the part of the publisher. Sigh.


Matt Kuzma 12.08.06 at 5:47 pm

Wow, postcards and mail! How quaintly twentieth-century.

Naturally the practice has been updated such that publishers provide a read-only electronic copy to the authors now and, by sending an email request with a .edu address and a link to your university staff page, you can have the author email you his electronic copy. Right?


John Quiggin 12.08.06 at 6:15 pm

I still get the odd postcard from time to time, as my most-cited article appeared in a relatively obscure and expensive journal, not held by all libraries.


John Quiggin 12.08.06 at 6:18 pm

And I still keep a more or less complete set, to hand out to students and so on, if I happen to mention an article.


MQ 12.08.06 at 6:43 pm

For this reason, people should be posting up pdf files of their printed articles on their web sites. It’s ridiculous we should be using a financial model like journals to distribute what should be free ideas. The whole point of academic is to disseminate ideas.


Matt Weiner 12.08.06 at 7:17 pm

I hope faithful readers of Barbara Pym know what offprints are! There’s a wonderful passage in Less Than Angles in which Esther Clovis, Excellent Woman of the world of anthropology, sits surrounded by the offprints that have been sent her ‘prompted by a sort of undefined fear, as a primitive tribesman might leave propitiatory gifts of food before a deity or ancestral shrine in the hope of receiving some benefit.’

Quote from this interesting-looking article, available only to project MUSE subscribers alas. MQ, you’re right, but it’s not as easy for individuals as it sounds; putting pdfs up on our sites won’t get us ahead in the profession, and not every journal lets you post their pdfs.


Matt Weiner 12.08.06 at 7:23 pm

Excellent Women is a Pym novel whose main character is, approximately, critically considering her role as an unmarried woman devoted to making various male-dominated hierarchies run smoothly—making tea for vicarage jumble sales, making indexes for her male anthropologist friends, etc. Just so no-one thinks my use of “Excellent Woman” in that comment is too strange.


R.J. O'Hara 12.08.06 at 9:15 pm

I remember one of the rites of passage for young graduate students was the creation of one’s own postcard for requesting reprints (as we call them in my field). A researcher’s reprint collection is/was a vital professional resource in disciplines with a broad literature like natural history.


Mark Schmitt 12.09.06 at 12:13 am

This post and the previous should also note the centrality of offprints to the economics of academic journals. In my first job out of college, I worked for an academic publishing company that had a dozen or so journals; that business would never have been profitable without the income from selling offprints to the journals’ authors.
It struck me twenty years ago that this was a terrible racket — we were making money by selling authors’ work back to them to distribute on their own, and authors were paying for the credential of having their work published in a journal. Online publication breaks up that racket, and that probably has something to do with the resistance to it.


J. Ellenberg 12.09.06 at 12:21 am

In mathematics, we still get offprints of our papers, but they mostly pile up in our offices — people who want an article not available online e-mail me, and I send them .pdf.

They are handsome, though, and I’d be sort of sorry to see them go.


Matt Weiner 12.09.06 at 8:39 am

Online publication breaks up that racket, and that probably has something to do with the resistance to it.

But does it account for resistance among faculty? We aren’t getting anything out of this racket. In my first job out of college I too worked for a journal publisher, in molecular biology (Cell Press), and they made money by selling offprints. I can’t recall whether authors got n free offprints or whether they had to buy a certain amount, but I think at least one journal required authors to buy offprints (though I may be mixing this up with page charges). Anyone who publishes in molecular biology has some research budget to fund their lab and may be able to use some of that to buy offprints from the journal.

In philosophy I don’t think every journal even has the option to buy offprints, and I think it would be considered somewhat disreputable for a journal to make authors pay for offprints (or page charges). A philosophy author might be a grad student or VAP working alone in a hovel who couldn’t afford such things.


DC 12.09.06 at 10:45 am

I have a few of those re-prints of my articles (and I think I refused to pay for them). I try to force them on other people at the slightest prompting.

The one person who still appreciates this practice is my mother. She loves the published-looking articles. I’m guessing they are in the scrapbook next to my 4th grade report on Crazy Horse.


BillCross 12.09.06 at 5:46 pm

There was nothing quite like the feeling of receiving one of those postcards and knowing that someone gave a damn enough about your work to write to you. Email just doesn’t quite have the same impact.


Keith 12.10.06 at 10:58 am

For the last five years I have worked as an administrator for several scientists. When I started in ’02 I would send about 5 offprints a month and now it’s one or two a year. PDF has ruined the offprint industry.


Alex 12.10.06 at 3:28 pm

At Royal Holloway, we had offprints in the library for some subjects – now that’s stingy.

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