Reprints of articles from scientific journals seem to have been an important part of scientific practice before the copying machine and the internet. Authors of articles were given a number of those reprints to share with their peers in times when going to a library and put it on a copying machine or simply downloading a pdf file were not an option.

I am interested in how reprints ("Sonderdrucke" as we call them in German) shaped scientific practice. Were they a social factor? (Probably) Who paid for them and why? What kind of impact had the relative scarcity of reprints in comparison to today?

I would be especially grateful for specific info on that topic around 1900 and for case studies from the history of biology (doesn't have to be from 1900).

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    My scientific career started in the 1980s. You got 100 reprints as part of the page charges you paid to publish your article (Applied Physics Letters, Physical Review, etc.). You could order more. Early on, one of the folks I worked with, who had started in the 1960s remarked that he could construct a history of the spread of the photocopier based on where the reprint requests came from over time. I only got requests from (at the time) Soviet bloc countries and India. By the mid-1990s even those ceased. I have purged my files of reprints. Not really answering the question, so only a comment.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 17:24
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    Interesting that this was still happening so recently! Thanks for your comment. I hope you don't mind my asking: So requests for reprints came from people with whom you were not familiar before? Kinda like today you can request a pdf of an article if you send people an email and they often just send you the file? Who handled the shipping of those requests? Did you have to mail them yourself?
    – openmedi
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 18:31
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    People I knew I might preemptively send a copy of an article I knew they would be interested in. Usually not, since they got the journals, and thus the article already. For the rest, every institution I was at had a postcard, pre-printed with the institution's return address, where you filled in the name/citation for the article and the author's address and sent it off. Some time later you would get an envelope in the mail. Usually the postcards were formatted so you taped them on to the envelope and it showed the already-filled-in return address. Other times you had to address it.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 19:33
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    There was a period of overlap between widespread computer availability and the reprint era; the early reference manager software had ways of printing reprint requests with a single click, so that for a period in the early 1990s I got a sudden upsurge of reprint requests as it became very easy to send requests semi-automatically. That died down fairly quickly and as Jon says I was left with mainly requests from developing countries.
    – iayork
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 16:34
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    @openmedi Mmmmaybe it was just called "Reference Manager"? I don't remember, if not.
    – iayork
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 17:49

1 Answer 1


I do not think anything changed between 1900 and the spread of computers. The normal practice with mathematical journals was this: he journal offered to the authors certain number of free reprints, plus additional ones could be purchased. This number varied, usually from 0 to 100, sometimes more. Typical in the 1970s was 50. The author would send them to other mathematicians who on his/her opinion might be interested. Some of them would be sent to libraries. On the other hand, anyone interested in having a particular paper would send a postcard to the author, asking for a reprint. I have in my collection reprints of early 20th century mathematicians, including Poincare, but I cannot trace completely the way how they come to me. Some were discarded by libraries, some passed as inheritance from mathematicians who retired or died, together with some books.

Many mathematicians did not care to send their reprints (an in many cases there were too many), so they usually lied in piles in their offices and every visitor could take them. Myself I discarded all my reprints in the early 90s, leaving one copy of each.

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