September 22, 1952
Address to the Maryland Section of the American Chemical Society
"The Crisis in Chemical Literature"
This talk was delivered while I was still a member of the Johns Hopkins Welch Medical Indexing Project. During that time I served as a volunteer abstractor for Chemical Abstracts and became friends with the editor, E.J. Crane and his associates, Charles Bernier and Dale Baker. The idealistic expression of a young chemist who had found the new religion of chemical documentation and unabashed loyalty to the chemical profession reflect thos early years when I continued to implore CA to adopt new ideas. Just five or six years later, the ACS would regard me as an upstart competitor and even tried to usurp by trademarked title Current Contents. By 1960 we were full-time competitors with the launch of the Index Chemicus.
We hear more and more these days about a so-called crisis in scientific literature. The uninitiated might very well interpret this statement to mean that there is not enough scientific literature being published, like the recent shortage of Idaho potatoes. I am certain that the members of the Maryland section are too painfully aware that this is not the case at all. There is a literal deluge of literature published each year, and it is increasing in geometric proportions.
And yet there is some degree of truth in the statement that there is a shortage of literature of certain kinds. We may have millions of scientific documents printed each year, but if they are not readily available it would matter very little if they were never published at all. The point is, that when we speak about the literature of chemistry we do not only mean the published results of research. We also include the so-called secondary sources of information —- the abstracting and indexing services and other compendia and encyclopedia . And it is precisely here that we do have a critical situation.
As chemists you are all familiar with Chemical Abstracts. Our society has often paid tribute to the wonderful work of Dr. Crane and his staff. Recently C.A. had a minor crisis. The subject index to the l95l Chemical Abstracts did not appear until the beginning of October l952. This means that material abstracted in many instances as early as November 1950 was not indexed for a two year period, not including the period of delay in originally receiving the primary publication.
It is possible that some people may interpret these developments as a form of criticism of the C.A. staff. This would be unjustified. Rather, one should take this as a criticism of the entire profession. Is the scientist responsible for recording his work which is ultimately supported in almost every instance by the public, whether it be directly through taxes, or indirectly when purchasing a product? If the chemist is responsible then he must make greater efforts to see that his work is properly recorded. In other words, each and every one of us must support our society’s publications program actively. Of course this means more money. However, this is not the only form of support required.
To begin with we must use these publications or we negate the very purpose of their existence. We must use them actively. It would be interesting to learn the percentage of those present who have scrutinized every issue of Chemical Abstracts regularly for the past year. And when I say scrutinize I do not mean a flip of the pages.
May I direct my next remarks especially to those in positions of an executive capacity, concerning the reading habits of individuals. We may have wonderful libraries, routing systems and company abstract bulletins, but there is nothing like, a personal subscription to a journal. In fact, were I the information officer in charge I’d see to it that copies of our society journals, and especially C .A. were available in every spot in the plant or laboratory, especially the rest rooms.
If I might digress for a moment—how many of you have ever observed people on a subway or bus when a newspaper or magazine is left behind by another passenger. In New York I once saw two quite dignified looking gentlemen get into a brawl because they had both lurched for a New York Times at the same moment. The point is—convenience as well as the appropriate occasion are important to the dissemination of information. We must provide our people with literature at all times so that we can take full advantage of those moments when they are most receptive. Psychology is most important in publishing, but the application of this science does not end with the printed word.
Proper support of C.A. then would be to double or treble its circulation. With more and more people using C .A. we would then find our other journals more widely used and especially those of our foreign colleagues.
Most scientists ultimately publish. Here again we can make the job of producing the secondary publication simple. As a concrete suggestion I should like at this time to propose that every A.C.S. member pledge to provide in his bibliographies the C.A. abstract numbers, there is one. To some this may seem like an additional deterrent to publishing papers. I can only add that this would be a good thing. . A conscientious author would not withdraw a paper because his publisher required a summary. Nor should he rebel at a requirement which will ultimately save him hours of literature searching.
Those of you who are librarians may feel that the C .A. abstract does not provide enough bibliographical material. If authors would provide the C.A. abstract with each bibliographical citation I can assure you that C.A. abstracts in the future would be much more informative by providing cross references to related abstracts. As an abstracter for C .A. I know how many hours of work are required to check an author’s references. Often one cannot take the time to do this. The result is an abstract of lower quality, but at least it is more prompt. Again, such a practice, it seems, could only result in increased use of the wonderful material available in C.A. If an author quotes or refers to an article in an unavailable journal one is not apt to check that material. However, if the C.A. number were indicated one could immediately turn to C.A. to learn if the material is of use.
To conclude, there does exist a crisis in scientific publication—that of the secondary publication. Additional financial support to the abstracting and indexing services such as Chemical Abstracts is an obvious, but partial solution. It is also essential that all of us more actively use these sources of information and that those of us in executive and other positions of leadership provide our scientists with this material at the proper psychological moment. We can also aid in the prompt and accurate production of our secondary publications by properly and completely documenting our published material, keeping in mind the reader who relies on such journals as Chemical Abstracts as a prompt source of reference material. This can be facilitated by providing abstract numbers as well as the usual bibliographic citations.
Finally, and most important of all, it is necessary that we all develop an awareness that there is a real crisis in documentation--at all levels—with this increased awareness we are bound to find reasonable solutions. Technological improvements in documentation methods may provide a partial solution to some of these problems, but only an active awareness that there do exist problems will prompt the development of these improvements. We had better find solutions quickly or we will find ourselves even less advanced than at the time Berzelius took up the challenge of the chemical literature.