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Tracking Chemical Information

August 18, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 33

“Vanishing Books” describes an unfortunate trend resulting in the loss of great swaths of information through the na??ve belief that all previous scientific information is available electronically (C&EN, April 28, page 30). This is far from true. Searchable abstract databases such as SciFinder Scholar are at best spotty before 1970 and contain less than 65% of the available information. It is true that if you know the information is there, there are strategies one can apply to find it, but often that premise is not valid.

Currently, SciFinder still cannot access the old-style chemical abstracts by their abstract designation. We have found that electronic Beilstein performs better before 1970, but even the electronic form pales in comparison to the information found in the hardcover version. The early forms of hardcover Beilstein provided abstracts of synthetic procedure, properties, and even what chemistry used the reference material as a starting material. This was also true of the early forms of Chemical Abstracts. In many cases, the original journals no longer exist in any form, and their only report is a true abstract versus a summary title reported in one of these hardbound volumes. In many places, all of the hardbound volumes have been either discarded or stored remotely, making them virtually inaccessible.

To compound the problem, nearly all the reviews on any given topic start where the last one had compiled all the existing knowledge. These earlier reviews are now mostly in hardbound, out-of-print books, most of which are being discarded as “old.” If one is tracing the information trail and the 1970 review refers to the previous compilation in 1958, it frequently happens that the previous volume once was there but was purged in the incorrect belief that everything published today contains everything from before. None of the contents of these books is available electronically, so this information is lost. It is a profound mistake to believe that the chemistry of previous generations is of any less value or importance than that of the present.

To its credit, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has resisted the pressure to discard the important volumes of previous work and has elected to relieve the pressures of storage by using a nearby retrievable storage site. We at Obiter Research, situated near UIUC, take advantage of the many companies that believe only electronic information is the answer. We enjoy a great competitive advantage by our access to hardcover information our customers and competitors have purged from their own inventory.

William Boulanger
Champaign, Ill.



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