On The Origins of Current Contents and ISI

Presented at

the 12th Annual Meeting of the

Association of Independent Information Professionals

St. Louis, Missouri

April 5, 1998


Eugene Garfield

Chairman Emeritus

Institute for Scientific Information®

3501 Market Street

Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA

Publisher, The Scientist®,

3600 Market Street

Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA

email: garfield@codex.cis.upenn.edu


What made you start your business?

When I was about to graduate from Columbia University Library School in 1954, I had planned to take a degree at Georgetown University in Leon Dortert’s program for machine translation of foreign languages. My best friend, Casimir Borkowski, already was there.

However, in late Spring, I received a call from Theodore Herdegen of Smith, Kline, and French Labs in Philadelphia who visited me at Johns Hopkins in 1953. Ted said they needed an expert on IBM machines to set up an information system for their new wonder drug Thorazine. The system would integrate published literature with physicians case reports, especially those involving side effects.

Since I was broke and not guaranteed a job at Georgetown, Ted convinced me to take a six-month consulting assignment. So I kept my rent-controlled Bronx apartment which I inherited from my Great Aunt. She had lived there until she went to a nursing home. And my family lived one block away.

I booked a room for three nights a week at the Broadwood Hotel on Broad Street in Philadelphia and worked four days a week at SK&F.

I naively assumed that the expense for my room and board would be tax deductible. But three years later I would learn that the IRS would assert that my actual residence was in Philadelphia since I was essentially employed full-time.

Be that as it may, in November after about five months on the job, I had an emergency call from my sister saying that I would have to retrieve my seven-year-old son Stefan. Her husband, now long deceased, had gone on a rampage.

I told Ted Herdegen that I had to return to New York in order to take care of my son but he offered to help me in an extraordinary way. He suggested that I bring Stefan to Mullica Hill in South Jersey. There he could attend school and Ted’s sister would watch Stefan after school until Ted and I both came home from Philadelphia together -- a commute of one and a half hours each way. Ted also found me a three-room house on an asparagus patch which I rented from an old farming couple for $20 per month.

In early 1955, SK&F offered me a full-time job but I turned it down since I was interested in doing other consulting as well. That year I finished assignments for NLM, Biological Abstracts, and a few others.

It may be of special interest to this audience that the SK&F folks urged me to stay in the interests of job security. Within a decade, most of them had been downsized and I was making a rather good living.

By the fall of 1955, I had married again and we moved to a big log cabin on the outskirts of Woodbury, New Jersey. There was an abandoned chicken coop which I converted into an office and miniature printing plant – I rented a Haloid plate maker (later Xerox) and a Davidson offset machine. I had landed a contract with Miles Labs to produce a contents page service covering the top 125 biomedicine journals. In those days, I was very active in the SLA Pharmaceutical Division and met Charlotte Studer. She knew of my "experience" with Contents in Advance – a contents page service in Library and Information Science which I had started in 1952 at the Welch Medical Library.

Shortly, thereafter, I was approached by two gentlemen from Washington, DC. Harry Brager, a PR man and his friend and partner, the owner the Kaufman Press. I had started a contents page service called Managements DocuMation Preview. They had seen a copy and suggested that we join forces but, fortunately, convinced me to change the name to Current Contents®. Once we announced the service, Richard Gremling of Bell Labs gave me a contract for 500 copies but wanted a customized cover which he called "Survey of Current Management Literature."

Harry and Mr. K put up $5,000, for a half interest. But they insisted on using the money to pay for a one-time direct mail shot to 50,000 business executives. Bell Labs was circulating the material to researchers and behavioral scientists – not managers -- but Harry never caught on to the fact that CEO’s are not particularly literature-minded, as are researchers, and depend on others for their information.

To make a long story shorter – the direct mailing shot produced two subscriptions. Brager and Kaufman soon pulled out and I was left with Current Contents of Social, Behavioral, and Management Sciences. It didn’t break even for over a decade, but fortunately CC® in the life sciences did. At first, I was able to sell Current Contents/PharmacoMedical, Chemical, and Life Sciences to pharmaceutical companies on contract. Then in 1958 I converted it to a subscription service.

The price was established by extensive market research. A close friend, the inventor of thermography, Jack Gershon-Cohen, asked why he couldn’t buy CC. So I asked what he thought it was worth. He said $2 per week seemed reasonable. So $100 was the price. The academic discount was the result of more deep research. The director of McArdle Memorial Labs at the University of Wisconsin asked for an academic discount of 50%.

One of the lessons I learned is that there is enormous resistance in both commercial and academic organizations to change, especially if there are entrenched empires – even if they are more expensive services. It took about ten years before the last big holdout, Merck, converted to Current Contents. They bought 500 copies for at least two decades. Today they are still an important customer.

So what made me start my business? It just seemed to evolve. I had no great dreams of heading a big corporation. We were happy to survive from day to day, perform a useful service, and move on to the next project or product improvement.

In spite of my own involvement with a commercial enterprise, I tried in vain to get non-profit groups like ACS interested in products like the Index Chemicus® which I eventually started in 1960. I tried to interest Chemical Abstracts in citation indexes but they did not consider them relevant. CA was busy trying to catch up with its three-year delay in indexing.

When I finally got an NIH grant in 1960 to produce a prototype Genetics Citation Index, I still could get no one interested. So I launched SCI® in 1964 and almost went bankrupt in the process. Eventually I had to sell an interest in ISI® in order to survive through the years before SCI broke even. It was the success of Current Contents that made this possible.

The same can be said for Index Chemicus. Were it not for ISI’s other successes, we would have dropped IC long ago. But today it is a profit center in its own right.

What Were the Challenges?

I was an academic but had to learn how to market a product and also to manage people. Learning to sell was a bit easier than learning to manage. To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to learn to manage mediocrity. Talented employees who also have entrepreneurial drive will not stay with you very long. This is well demonstrated by Dick Harris and others who went on to be successful entrepreneurs. As I once told a group of disgruntled shareholders – you can’t hire the "whiz kids" when you have two employees.

Would I do it again now?

In today’s environment, I might well be able to accomplish some of the things I wanted to do under a non-profit umbrella. The climate has changed somewhat, but the NSF and other agencies still make it tough for unaffiliated persons. Back in the fifties it did not occur to me to establish a non-profit institution. So I became a consultant! As the old saying goes, it was a non-profit but it wasn’t planned that way.

Today, there are SBIR’s and other government programs. But it is difficult to judge whether any of my harebrained ideas would have been accepted even if I was non-profit. Government agencies were as conservative as bankers in the fifties. It was much safer for them to support professional societies and universities. The Department of Defense had little reluctance to work with private companies but they also had little interest in the medical and life sciences in those days. The Air Force gave us a small research contract which led to some interesting work in the history of science. It always feels good to be free and independent even though you never really are. The creative drive is hard to suppress so it is possible to take many alternative routes to accomplish your goals.

Further suggested reading:

  • "Current Contents -- ninth anniversary" Essays of an Information Scientist, pdf file available
  • "How It All Began : With a Loan from HFC" Essays of an Information Scientist, Vol:4, p.359-362, 1980.