Issue Date: June 11, 2007
At The Cusp Of A New Century
Let me begin by saying that Chemical Abstracts Service was first described to me, in 1992, as a "national treasure." It is that, but only because of the work of several generations of chemists, many of them volunteers and many of them from outside the U.S. In that sense, CAS is a world treasure. CAS houses many millions of indexed journal and patent literature references, as well as other significant sources of scientific information. Together with the Registry of chemical substances and the reaction and Markush databases, which document related sets of chemical structures often used in intellectual property claims, this suite of interconnected and cross-indexed resources is a towering scientific achievement.
CAS is many other things, some of them paradoxical. For example, it is the largest operating unit of the American Chemical Society and provides the largest portion of financial support for society programs. Many members may not be aware of this fact. Two-thirds of ACS employees reside in and around Columbus, Ohio, and work at CAS, yet ACS is better known as a Washington, D.C.-based organization. When the National Institutes of Health announced that it would develop PubChem, a free substance collection database configured like the CAS Registry, many members expressed the view that a free-to-the-user government service would be a positive thing and that the society should not object. CAS often seems to invite controversy by simply being what it is: a successful global publisher lodged within a not-for-profit society. Opinions often differ on how CAS should balance financial objectives against mission considerations.
What is this successful publishing "business," housed within ACS, that is subject to so many contradictory, or at least complex, perspectives? Where did CAS come from, where is it now, and how might it move forward into its second century of operation?
It is noteworthy that CAS was born out of a perceived need to catalog, and make available, summaries of the world's chemical literature. Like any good business, CAS began its life by filling a market need. For nearly 50 years, ACS had to subsidize this activity. Despite the market need, the product costs were too high for the business to be self-sustaining, hence the name "Chemical Abstracts Service." To appreciate what CAS is today, it is critical to understand that ACS underwrote this service during the decades when it was essential to the chemical sciences but unable to support itself. Fifty years is an impressive time frame for this level of mission-driven altruism by any standard!
Only in the 1950s, with the explosion of research and the decline of European competition, could CAS become self-sustaining financially. It did so with an eye on its mission and a passion to look ahead to unfolding technologies. As the history chronicled in this issue of C&EN shows (see page 41), CAS was a pioneer in structure searching, building the CAS Registry, going global, and establishing the Scientific & Technical Information Network (STN)—a kind of scientific Internet before the Internet as we know it today became a household utility.
CAS has remained true to its mission and its roots. From the inception of its online operations, CAS has followed the ACS Board of Directors' policy to provide academia online access to CAS information at discounted rates that represent between 80 and 90% off the industrial price. This principle has been followed for both the STN service and later for SciFinder Scholar.
Another example of allegiance to the mission involves CAS thoroughly covering the full range of chemical information regardless of commercial value. Even obscure or less fashionable subject areas have received, and continue to receive, their due year in and year out.
The modern online era has been particularly kind to CAS. This division has enjoyed an unbroken 14 years of increasing revenues and increasing net contribution to ACS to support the society's membership and education programs and other activities that are not covered by dues revenues. It is particularly satisfying that for all of these years, the increase in revenues has been much greater than the rate of price increase of CAS products, thus demonstrating true growth in usage. (CAS has taken pride in moderating its price increases well below industry averages, and today its prices rise at close to the rate of inflation.)
Before I move beyond CAS history, I want to pay tribute to the great names in CAS's past: Dale Baker, E. J. Crane, Arthur Noyes, William Noyes, Austin Patterson, and Fred Tate. And we should not forget the thousands of dedicated scientists, volunteers, and current staff members, whose stewardship of this great enterprise spans decades. One living link to this history is Hideaki Chihara, a renowned Japanese chemist. His early work as a volunteer abstractor in 1952 led him to create the Japan Association for International Chemical Information (JAICI), where he is currently the president and a great friend and partner to CAS.
CAS has built strong partnerships globally. In 1983, CAS signed an agreement with FIZ Karlsruhe, in Germany, to cooperate in forming an international online network. In 1984, online access to CAS databases became available on a global scale when STN was launched. CAS and FIZ Karlsruhe continue this relationship today.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the far-sighted former leaders of ACS, people like longtime executive director John K Crum; Joseph A. Dixon, chairman of the ACS Board and "father of the CAS Governing Board" in 1991; and S. Allen Heininger, president of the society in that same year. Several generations of ACS leaders have faced difficult transitions with CAS and have always provided wise counsel and made the best possible decisions.
We have now entered a time of particularly dramatic change regarding the generation, gathering, packaging, analysis, and distribution of virtually every category of information. For organizations like ACS and CAS, whose missions and business models are founded on information, these changes bring enormous challenges and opportunities. There are no tried-and-true maps or compasses to serve as navigational aids throughout these tumultuous times.
Forecasting is a dangerous business, especially in light of the open access movement and other megatrends in the arena of scientific information, but I will make some observations.
First, never in its history has CAS faced such a rapidly changing environment or such a confluence of trends and forces impacting its operations. I will mention just a few of these here. Web 2.0 and the opportunities for new online social interaction have been on our minds, so much so that we will release a prototype of a new service this year. The Web also offers us intriguing possibilities for even more linking to supplementary information. Also on the drawing board are new business models that could potentially make our services both less expensive for users and ever more relevant to their individual work processes. As our new STN AnaVist environment illustrates (see page 54), we are embracing new ways of analyzing, visualizing, and mining massive data sets. Another evolving example is our substance AV tool for SciFinder—to be released later this year.
Among the challenges we must face is the concentration of publishing power among traditional publishers in megaconglomerates. CAS competes with these publishers and yet also collaborates with them in database building and in our STN service. We also face government participation in the information market, both as a supplier to us and as a direct service provider to end-users. Another set of challenges is inherent in emergent Web-driven phenomena. Google has become a ubiquitous first-search environment for many information seekers. Moreover, there is a plethora of other search engines and burgeoning chemical information services on the Web, many spring-boarding off the government's PubChem database, opening up new portals to chemical information.
What is the future of CAS in this environment?
First, let me stress that CAS management is responsible to the executive director and chief executive officer of ACS and the Governing Board for Publishing, which, in turn, reports to the ACS Board of Directors. They approve our strategy and provide overall direction. Collectively, we must balance the CAS service mission with ACS financial targets. On the one hand, like ACS, CAS is a service organization. On the other, we are constrained to compete in the information marketplace since all CAS expenses must be met by customers' payments.
As I imagine the next several years unfolding, I believe these apparent contradictions can continue to be reconciled, as they have for decades. That is because—at least in this near-term planning horizon—what CAS does will be needed more than ever by the chemistry community. Former ACS president Ron Breslow was recently quoted as saying that the chemistry yet to be discovered may be one hundred times the chemistry that has been revealed to date. This vista of discovery opens opportunities and challenges, especially to an organization with our history and values.
Google states that it wants to provide access to all of the world's information. However, CAS is the only organization in the world today that has the stated goal of acquiring and indexing all of the world's publicly disclosed chemistry, along with the capacity and proven skills to pursue that goal. The CAS Registry, at 31 million substances, is more than 50% larger than the next-largest collection and significantly more valuable. More than 10,000 substances typically enter the Registry each day and become part of this extraordinary resource. CAS's mission is to accelerate the growth of the Registry to serve the chemical enterprise as the next century of discovery unfolds.
This year, CAS will be announcing the completion of a multiyear technology project that will enable CAS teams to analyze all publicly available substance collections on the Web and compare them to the Registry. This achievement will underpin our goal to make the Registry the true "master database of publicly disclosed small molecules," which is a big step beyond its past role as simply "the most comprehensive substance collection."
William A. Noyes, founding editor of Chemical Abstracts and former ACS president, presented this same goal in his remarks on Sept. 8, 1920, at the ACS meeting in Chicago: "We must still have, of course, a complete catalog of all known compounds."
In our second century, CAS management and staff are deeply motivated and inspired by the prospect of serving the chemical community in ways our predecessors clearly envisioned.
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