by Mark Needleman
ASIS Votes on Z39.14-199x
Several months ago, as chair of the ASIS Standards Committee, I invited all
ASIS members to participate in the standards development process by reviewing
NISO Z39.14 Writing Abstracts and helping the committee develop the comments and
vote that ASIS would submit as a voting member of the National Information
Standards Organization (NISO). Several members accepted my invitation, devoting
a lot of time and energy to the process and providing committee members with
valuable comments. We used those thoughts to develop the following paper that
was submitted to NISO. I will keep the membership informed of the progression of
this standard. In addition, I will once again solicit reviewers from the general
membership on future votes when feasible.
At the conclusion of this article, I have provided a summary of all votes and
actions that have been taken by NISO during the time I have served as chair of
the ASIS Standards Committee.
If you are interested in serving on the Standards Committee, please contact
me or Richard Hill at ASIS Headquarters with an indication of your interest.
ASIS is voting NO on Z39.14-199x with the following comments.
Comments on Specific Sections:
- The definition of abstract in the definitions section is limited to documents
that present studies. Opinion pieces, newspaper articles, status reports and
bibliographies are not supposed to have abstracts based on this definition. In
an environment where almost every type of thing is accessible through electronic
means, the definition needs to be broadened to include all types of documents and
the rest of the standard needs to be revised to ensure it conforms to this wider
- Is it necessary to list the domains for which abstracts are applicable? The
list states "all of the natural, physical and biomedical sciences, as well as
within the humanities and the behavioral and social sciences," which raises
questions such as "how about engineering or technology which are often not
considered 'science'?" The list seems unnecessary and limiting.
- Introduction: the comma after "abstract" in the first line is not needed.
- Section 3 - Definitions:
- The following element is missing:
a. Abstract authorship: What is the recommended standard for acknowledging the
authorship of an abstract when it is used by an access service? The following
This usually appears at the end of the abstract or in a following field of the
record. It is recommended that the individual abstractor NOT be indicated
(except for in-house purposes) but that the name of the service that provided the
abstract or revised or translated it be given. The examples in the appendix
should include this attribution.
- Author (revised)
- Author (translated)
- Name of the access service providing the abstract
- Name or initials of the individual abstractor
- Access publications and services (rewrite)
"Print or on-line collections of abstracts accompanied by their
bibliographic references that serve as alerting or retrospective access keys, or
both, to original documents. Author abstracts are often used verbatim when they
are well-written and where permitted by copyright. Otherwise, services either
write original abstracts or revise the author's abstract to meet the needs of the
service and on-line retrieval."
[Note: in particular, delete the phrase "when the original one is
- Electronic abstracts: Is this necessary?
- Structured abstracts
If this is a legitimate form of an abstract, then it should be discussed in
the standard. Otherwise, this definition should make it clear that this type of
abstract is outside of the scope of this standard. As it is now, the standard
contains only this definition and an example in the appendix.
- Section 4.1 Purpose
Replace the phrase "fringe interest" with "marginal interest." An assumption
being made here is that users use the abstract as a substitute for the full
document. A user may find a document of great interest but only need the
abstract at a particular time.
In addition this section is very limiting. There are other purposes for
having abstracts, such as to serve as an introductory overview for users who plan
on reading a document, to facilitate free-text searching, to be used in
abstracting and indexing databases, etc.
- Section 4.2 Location of the abstract
This section refers to a printed publication. Therefore, the first sentence
should be revised to "In a print journal, . . . ."
How about locating the abstract with the table of contents as an appropriate
alternative in some cases? This is appropriate for some journals where the
abstract at the beginning of the article would interfere with the style of
presentation (e.g., Smithsonian Magazine). Since there is more electronic use of
tables of content, the presence of the abstracts there obviously would enhance
the value of such a listing.
For electronic abstracts some consideration should be given and mention made
of delimiting them with standard tags or codes to facilitate the electronic
handling of abstracts that are part of text files. Such delimiters would also
facilitate locating abstracts, particularly in instances when the page format is
- Section 5.2 Reports and theses (rewrite)
"Include an abstract in every separately published report, paper or thesis.
If the distribution of the document is restricted (i.e., not publicly available),
it is highly desirable that a publicly-available abstract be provided for
[Note: The use of "pamphlet" in the definition is puzzling. Also, there are
forms of restricted distribution of government documents other than
classification (e.g., limited distribution to non-US citizens); the statement
should be broad enough to cover all such situations.]
- Section 5.5 Standards
This section goes into detail about the content of an abstract for a standard.
Since this is not true for other types of documents described here and since
Section 6 addresses the content of abstracts, perhaps this is out-of-place.
- Section 6 Types of Abstracts and Their Content
The definitions of informative and indicative abstracts are flawed in
sections 6.1 and 6.2. It explains that informative abstracts are for experiments
and indicative are for all other types. Documents that are not about experiments
can be represented in informative abstracts as well.
This is one of the major flaws in the standard. It relegates all
non-empirical documents to the indicative style, when, in fact, many historical,
theoretical or philosophical writings would be better served by an informative
abstract. This standard appears to disallow the writing of an informative
abstract for any document other than one reporting on experimental work. Equal
emphasis on the important elements of information to be included in an
informative abstract of theoretical work should be provided.
Throughout Section 6, the standard presents "dos" and "don'ts" that are a
matter of policy and should be determined by the purpose of the abstracts and how
they are used. For example, in section 6.1.3 the priority list for what to do
about too many results is subjective and should not be recommended universally.
- Section 6.1.1 Purpose
This is the first mention of "self-contained." The explanation for this
status, which is included in Section 7.1, should be moved or repeated here.
The standard is unclear as to who its audience is. Although the standard
states that it is intended for both abstractors who work for access services and
authors, it may be unlikely that authors are familiar with many of the concepts
(e.g., descriptors, identifiers) referred to. If the standard is indeed for use
by authors those concepts should be explained as one cannot assume
non-professionals are familiar with them.
In the last sentence, "in order" can be deleted.
- Section 6.2 Indicative Abstracts
Three of the most popular document types for which this type of abstract is
written are not included, namely books, conference proceedings and annual
Last paragraph. Amend 3rd sentence to "These statements may include
essential background material and descriptions of the approaches used, aspects of
the subject matter discussed or arguments presented in the text."
- Section 6.3 Indicative-Informative Abstracts
This appears to be a catch-all for documents not suited to either an
informative or indicative abstract.
- Section 7.2 Length
What is the standard for counting the words in an abstract? All words?
This should be stated.
- Complete Sentences
This section also contains information about where collateral information
should be located. This information should not be in this section, but should
instead be in a separate, easily located enumerated section of the standard.
- Section 7.6 Terminology
We do not agree with the last statement in the first paragraph: "For
descriptors, however, such use should be restricted to the meanings specified in
the vocabulary control tool from which they are taken." The abstract should
contain the language of the document even when it is in conflict with the
definitions established in the controlled vocabulary. Abstracting and indexing
services should not be changing the wording of author abstracts to meet their own
definitions. Just as the titles and the full text of the document contain the
language used by the author, so should the abstract. Trying to do otherwise will
lead to artificial reconstructions of abstract language that will not match the
use of language in the document.
The second paragraph is very unclear. Here is a suggested rewriting of it:
"For the purposes of on-line retrieval, abstracts should have terminology
that is (1) fully spelled out, (2) refers to the specifics of the document
content, (3) places words directly adjacent to other words to represent concepts
(e.g., 'middle class and working class' rather than 'middle and working class')
and (4) avoids word adjacencies across punctuation that could lead to false
retrieval (e.g., 'visibility through the periscope, detection of targets on sonar
In addition an example should be provided of the standard practice of
handling abbreviations the first time they are used - spell the term out the
first time it is used followed by the abbreviation, then use abbreviations on
- We don't think the use of capital letters for the titles is attractive or
easy to read and we doubt if this is common practice in "primary publications."
We would recommend instead that the titles be in bold and upper/lower case. We
don't have a preference regarding the centering of the titles and don't think the
standard should promote this style over any other.
- Examples in the appendix are unclear as to the differences between each
type of abstract. Features which differentiate one type from another should be
- Ordering of the appendix: There is something confusing about the way in
which the appendix is organized. Also, the appendix should not include
additional directions on the recommended use of the abstracts, but should instead
refer back to the appropriate section of the standard.
Proposed reordering of the appendix:
- Examples: Informative Abstracts
- Examples: Indicative Abstracts
- Examples: Indicative-Informative Abstracts
- Example: Structured Abstract
- Example: Monograph
- Examples: Chapters
- Examples: Different Styles of Abstracts for the Same Document
- Examples: Complete Entries in Access Services (with bibliographic
- Citations for Abstracts Used as Examples
- As with some other Z39 standards, this one is really only a guideline. It
is too bad that there is not a way to indicate this clearly.
- The standard uses the word "accurately" in several places where it is
unnecessary. For example:
Foreword: "Basic content must be quickly and accurately identifiable,. . ."
4.1: ". . . to identify the basic content of a document quickly and accurately;
. . .
The idea of accurately portraying the content is surely implied.
- The list of "documents to be abstracted" in Section 5 is too limited. The
guidelines should apply to such uses as writing abstracts or summaries for
metadata records for data sets, such as the Directory Information Format (DIF)
used by the Global Change Directory (NASA) and the Federal Geographic Data Center
(FGDC) metadata standard for describing spatial data sets.
- It would be useful to know what the motivation was for revising the
standard. The forward says that the "revised standard represents no basic
departure from the principles and practices of the original edition." If so, why
is it is it being revised and what were the purposes of the revision?
- It is unclear whether the purpose of extracting text directly from the
original document for inclusion in the abstract is acceptable, although this is
common practice for access services.
- The standard should state what an abstractor should do if the document is
poorly written. Also what to do if there is no conclusion - should the
abstractor indicate that fact explicitly.
Mark Needleman, chair of the ASIS Standards Committee, works in the University of
California Department of Library Automation.
Recent NISO Actions
ASIS Votes on NISO Ballots
Pending NISO Votes
- Z39.7 - Library Statistics (reconsideration vote) YES with Comments - note this
occurred during the transition from Nolan Pope being chair
- Z39.4 - Guidelines for Indexes and Related Information Retrieval Devices - YES
- NISO/ANSI/ISO 12083 - Electronic Manuscript Preparation and Markup - YES - this
vote also includes the withdrawal of Z39.59-1988
- New work item for the establishment of a committee to develop a Standard Format
for Downloading Records from Bibliographic and Abstracting and Indexing Databases
- New work item for the establishment of a committee to develop a standard for
Sorting of Alphanumeric and Other Symbols - YES
- Z39.53-199x - Codes for the representation of Languages for Information Exchange
- YES with Comments
- NISO/ANSI/ISO 3166-1993 - Codes for the Representation of Names of Countries -
- Z39.50-199x - Information Retrieval - YES with Comments
- Z39.22-1989 - Proof Corrections - YES (5 year reaffirmation vote)
- Z39.49-1992 - Computerized Book Ordering - YES (Withdrawal vote)
- Z39.41-1990 - Printed Information on Spines - YES (5 year reaffirmation vote)
- Z39.18-199x - Scientific and Technical Reports - YES with Comments
- Z39.14-199x - Writing Abstracts - NO with Comments
- New work item to establish a National Standard for Titles for Conference
Proceedings - YES with Comments
- Z39.74-199x - Guides to Accompany Microform Sets - YES
- Z39.76-199x - Data Elements for Binding of Library Materials - YES
Other ASIS Actions for NISO
- Z39.57-1989 - Holding Statement for Non-Serial Items (5 year review) - due
- Z39-64-1989 - East Asian Character Code for Bibliographic Use (5 year review) -
- Z39.32-199x - Information on Microfiche Headers - due 7/7/95
- Z39.4-199x - Guidelines for Indexes and Related Information Retrieval Devices
(2nd vote - ASIS voted YES with comments on original vote) - due 7/7/95
- Balloting for NISO Board (terms of office July 1, 1994 - June 30, 1997):
- Director representing Information Services - Peter Rusch
- Director representing Libraries - Lenny Stovel
- Director representing Publishing - Elizabeth Bole Eddison
- Nominated Nolan Pope for 2nd Term on NISO Board - February 7, 1995