Chemistry – feel the love

My first love in science was chemistry. It was the usual story of an inspiring and eccentric teacher who stoked my interest and got me hooked on transformations, equations and the periodic table. OK, so the bangs, colours and smells helped a bit. My interest lasted until sometime during my chemistry degree course, then unfortunately waned dramatically. After graduating, my interest did pick up a bit but I realised by then that chemistry and me were destined just to be good friends. My relationship with chemistry (and indeed with science) was not going to be an intimate one, with hanky-panky and rumpy-pumpy, but a skittering, lightweight interest. More of a light hydrogen bond than a deep triple-bonded affair.
I found my way therefore into libraries and started working as a librarian in a pharmaceutical R&D Information department. It seemed to me then (early 1980s) that the most interesting stuff going on was always in chemistry – substructure searches, connection tables and the like. I didn’t get to do any of that but had to content myself with looking after the printed research tools.

Chemists have always been big information users and Chemical Abstracts was the king of indexes, taking up more shelf space than anything else in my library at that time. The arrival of the quinquennial Chem Abs collected index was always a big deal – we could throw away ten sets of individual volume indexes and replace them by one giant set of indexes. Eventually though pressure on space was such that we could not accommodate the printed Chem Abs and had to make the switch to microfilm. We had a cunning machine that let you type in the number of the abstract you wanted to view and then the microfilm reader automatically wound the film to about the right place on the spool. It was high-tech for those times but now it seems gloriously retro.
I’m sure many chemists and chemical information specialists will, like me, have shed a tear when they saw this announcement from Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS):

Effective January 1, 2010, Chemical Abstracts (TM) and other print products (with the exception of the CA SELECTS (TM) products) will no longer be available in print.

Actually I am surprised it has taken this long. Cumulated Index Medicus (the print more-or-less equivalent of PubMed), for example, ceased print publication in 2004. With various online versions of Chemical Abstracts and the wonderful SciFinder interface, the printed volumes are pretty much redundant.
I nearly broke wind in surprise when I recently read another headline – CAS Launches Free Online Database. Could it be that CAS, after bitterly resisting the US NLM’s work in making PubChem available for free, had undergone a conversion to free data? Were they going to make their database of 44 million chemical substances freely available? Reading further I found my answer:

[CAS] officially launched Common Chemistry, a free online database containing information on 7,800 chemicals of widespread and general interest as well as all 118 elements from the periodic table … the substances in Common Chemistry were selected because they had been cited 1,000 or more times in CAS databases

Not quite 44 million, but I suppose 8,000 is a start.
For now though the PubChem service looks like a better bet, with over 19 million unique structures. It is really a chemical database for biologists though, lacking the physico-chemical properties that chemists may need but offering information mainly on substances with biological activity. PubChem has close links with ChemSpider, another free chemical database with about 21 million substances. ChemSpider was also the result of a recent press release as it has been acquired by the Royal Chemical Society, “to fulfil its strategic objective of disseminating knowledge to the chemical community and advancing the chemical sciences“. The press release says that “ChemSpider is the richest single source of structure-based chemistry information” and it’s good to see that it is in good hands. One can’t help reflecting on the difference between the UK’s learned society for chemists – helping to develop a free chemical database service – and the USA’s equivalent, the American Chemical Society who own CAS.
Chemistry seems to be everywhere these days. The UK Chemical Database Service (CDS) at Daresbury is again fighting for its life, in the face of a review by EPSRC. CDS have set up an online petition. CDS is a “national facility dedicated to the provision of centralised chemical information for the UK academic community“. It offers crystallographic data, spectroscopy data and synthetic organic chemistry databases. The petition asks users to affirm that they see a need for a UK national chemical database service.
I also received an email (funnily enough I just received a second copy of it) asking for my input “to help shape the future of chemistry database solutions. The global market research firm mmr is currently conducting a short survey about chemistry database solutions, and you are invited to participate.
I didn’t at first spot the “market research firm” bit. The survey is ostensibly about SciFinder, CrossFire and Reaxys. Perhaps I’m too cynical but in reality the survey looks to me like a marketing puff for Reaxys, Elsevier’s new chemistry database, sorry I mean “workflow solution for chemists”. I thought I was shaping the future of chemistry databases, but in reality I’m just shaping the future of Elsevier’s profits. Oh well, ’twas ever thus.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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2 Responses to Chemistry – feel the love

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    /me takes notes
    We’ve had requests @F1000 to link out to CAS. Perhaps PubChem might be a better bet?

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Not really. PubChem is a substance database primarily. I was a bit vague in referring to CAS, but they have both a substance database (the Registry file) and a literature database. I imagine you would want to link into the literature.
    I don’t think there is really an alternative to the CA literature database at present.

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