The art of abstracts

[This post is based on the editorial in the August 2011 issue — the full text can be accessed here, available for free to all registered users. We welcome feedback on our editorials in the comments section below.]

An abridged version of the editorial is usually featured in these posts, but I thought I’d tell a little of the story behind the story in this case (and after you’ve read this, you can go and read the editorial!). The team here at Nature Chemistry follow the literature predominantly through RSS feeds and so we’re quick to see (and comment on) graphical abstracts that catch the eye – particularly those that confuse and/or amuse rather than instruct.

I’ve also seen a few blog posts here and there in the last year or so lauding the introduction of this wonderful new publishing innovation (I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the general gist). Now, graphical abstracts might be new in some fields, but they’ve been in chemistry journals for quite some time. And this got me thinking — just how long have they been around and who started the trend? Now, the internet is a marvellous thing, but I thought I might find out more if I went to a real chemistry library at a university; one with real journals and real books.

I’m now going to sound like I am very old to some of you, but e-mail only really became a popular and widespread tool during my undergraduate years. Looking something up in the scientific literature meant leaving the chemistry department, walking to the library in the middle of the campus (remembering to take my photocopying card with me) and flipping through bound volumes of journals. During my PhD, more and more scientific literature found its way on to the web, but trips to the library were still necessary. So, fondly reminiscing about my student days, I set off to the chemistry library at the University of Cambridge (with thanks to Oren for arranging access).

I spent a happy morning browsing row upon row of nicely bound journals and occasionally lifting one from its home on a shelf. There were quite a few other people in the library, but in the two or three hours I was there, I don’t recall seeing anyone else venture over to the journals. Students appeared to be studying or surfing the web to find the objects of their desire — scientific journals or otherwise. I had a fairly complete set of the chemistry literature all to myself, and I could browse — sure, I was doing some targeted searching, but I was also browsing… looking for nothing in particular other than things that happened to catch my eye. (Such as this article by Ian Rae from New J. Chem. in 1990 (vol. 14, pp. 3–4): ‘Why can’t we have element Q?’ — which, incidentally, I can’t find online anywhere…).

Anyway, it was nice to be back in a library — the smell and feel of the books is something you obviously don’t get from searching through the literature online, and that’s a shame (well, it is for me — for all you youngsters out there who don’t even know where your university library is, you probably wouldn’t miss what you’ve never experienced). The chronology of the appearance of graphical abstracts in a broader range of journals is something that didn’t quite make it into the editorial, so here it is for those of you who are interested:

As far as I can tell, Angewandte Chemie was first (in 1976!) and then Tetrahedron Letters joined the party in 1986 (some of you reading this still might not have been born by this point…). Tetrahedron itself followed suit in 1990. The first RSC journal to include graphical abstracts was not Chem. Commun., but J. Chem. Soc., Perkin Trans. 2 in 1993. Chem. Commun. did start soon after in mid 1994. The ACS was a little late to the game and graphical abstracts did not make their debut in JACS until 2002. The trail had, nonetheless, already been blazed by JOC in 1996 and Org. Lett. from its inception in 1999. After a bit more sleuthing, however, I did discover that from 1992 onwards, Inorg. Chem. included graphical abstracts for some of its Communications. It took a while for the physical chemists to join in (at ACS journals at least) with J. Phys. Chem. A and B getting graphical in 2006. If I’m wrong about any of this, or you have anything else interesting you wish to share about graphical abstracts, then please do comment.

So, the point of the editorial… I do believe that graphical abstracts do bring back some of the browsability that we’ve lost by moving away from paper journals. Not all of it, but a little flavour at least. We’ve also taken the opportunity to point out in the editorial what we think makes a good graphical abstract — something every publishing chemist should take a little time to think about.

You can read the editorial here (registration is free).


Stuart Cantrill (Chief Editor, Nature Chemistry)