The Cornucopia  # 19, 6-8, August 1964
Published by American Chemical Society Division of Agricultural & Food Chemistry

Readers Comments - Re: Chemical Abstracts

We are publishing a letter from one of our overseas readers commenting on chemical abstracts and other abstracting services. At the suggestion of Len Stoloff we have asked Eugene Garfield, Director of the Institute for Scientific Information to comment on some of the questions raised in Mr. Schwartz's letter.


Letter from Herbert Schwartz dated April 25, 1964

In view of the poor response to the request for comments on the proposed changes in the Chemical Abstracts prices and features, I am also writing a letter. I did not write sooner because I am an abstractor and thus a member of the firm. Nevertheless, I think somebody should discuss the subject logically, and I shall attempt to do just that.

In my opinion CA cannot be replaced by such half-way measures as Chemical Titles, Current Chemical Papers, Current Contents, or even Index Chemicus, for none of these give any information on the subject of a paper other than title, author(s), source, and in some cases the address of the author(s). What is a chemist supposed to do with this information? If he is near a large library, he could look up the paper, or he could write to the author(s) for a reprint. In one case he can even obtain a copy of the paper. None of the above-listed services cover all the journals covered by CA. There are many obscure journals not covered by the “Title” lists which are also not available in most libraries in the U.S.A. These journals are also in foreign languages, which means that the chemist is obliged to obtain a translation of a paper that might be of interest. He cannot know if the paper is important until he reads the translation. CA provides summaries or abstracts of these papers in legible English with full information on the technical portion. Thus the reader need not refer to the original in most instances. How could anybody consider this abstract service “out-dated.” As time goes by this service becomes increasingly important. Each year several new journals appear, and libraries are being hard put to obtain them and even to find sufficient shelf space for them. One volume of CA could contain the information of seven to ten thousand journals.

I know whereof I speak since I handle three of these obscure journals plus patents. The information in my abstracts is usually not available elsewhere,

My abstracting is done as a service to our profession. The honorarium received for this work does not even begin to pay for the time and effort expended, but I do not look for more since I abstract as a service to all chemists. Therefore, I am shocked by the idea, that CA is becoming less available to chemists. Ever since I joined ACS, I subscribed to CA since it was my key to the world's chemical literature. I should hate to lose this service.

This is now my personal view of the subject. In short, I see CA as a service of a special type to chemistry and not as a business venture to be kept “in the black” by subscriptions. Other sources of funds should be located to keep this service available to chemists, who happen to be the people needing this service.

Herbert Schwartz
Smaragdplein 186
Utrecht, Holland


Letter from Dr. Eugene Garfield dated July 9, 1964

Mr. Schwartz describes Current Contents as a “half-way measure” He presumably has in mind some preconceived ideal information system which includes conventional abstracts. Of course, his implication that the INDEX CHEMICUS does not provide any information on the subject of a paper other than title and author is quite inaccurate. The INDEX CHEMICUS, as is well known, provides molecular formulas for every new compound indexed, together with appropriate structural diagrams, and, whenever practicable complete flow diagrams of the reactions described. In addition, in the majority of cases, the author's own abstract is included.

By stating that CURRENT CONTENTS “only” provides the title, author, source, and the author's address, he implies that this is the complete story. CURRENT CONTENTS by itself is not a complete information system. It is used in conjunction with a good local library or a service such as ISI's Original Article Tear Sheet (OATS) service which enables the reader to obtain complete articles promptly.

Mr. Schwartz' use of the word “coverage” is questionable. For example, he claims that none of the services he mentioned “covers” all of the journals covered by CA. This statement contains many inaccuracies. One of the most flagrant is the failure to say that these other services “cover” and publish data from articles, and even whole journals, not abstracted by CA. CURRENT CONTENTS is absolutely complete for the journals it covers; CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS is not. An article-by-article study recently completed for the National Science Foundation shows that the abstracting by CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS, BIOLOGICAL ABSTRACTS, or PHYSICS ABSTRACTS is generally incomplete even for the more obvious journals.

Like so many others, Mr. Schwartz perpetuates the rnyth that CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS contains all the information reported in the 9,000 journals it covers. On the contrary, only a very small number of articles are ever abstracted from most of the journals on the CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS list. It is no slur on the excellent work done by CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS to observe (as is indicated in a paper, “Statistical Analyses of International Chemical Research by Individual Chemists, Languages and Countries” to be presented before the American Chemical Society in Chicago on September 2, 1964) that the majority of the papers abstracted in CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS are from a relatively small list of journals. Documentalists sometimes refer to this as Bradford's Law. Briefly, this law states that a large percentage of the subject matter of any field is to be found in a small fraction of the total journals. To obtain complete coverage of a subject, an exponentially growing list of journals must be screened to find a diminishing number of additional pertinent articles.

The sentence stating that one volume of CA could contain the information of seven to ten thousand journals (italics mine) is such a semantic horror that I merely call attention to it and leave the reader to try to decipher the puzzle.

Mr. Schwartz is right that CA covers many obscure journals. Just how important these journals are and how much the chemical community is willing to pay for the coverage of these obscure journals is certainly a moot point. What evidence is there to support the notion that these same obscure journals cannot be covered by any other method than the conventional abstract? A large number of these obscure journals do, in fact, contain English, German, or French abstracts that are quite useful. When one obtains a copy of the original article, he is, therefore, not necessarily stymied by the foreign language involved. Only a small percentage of all the chemical articles published are in the less well known languages. Certainly over 50% of the organic chemical literature is in English, approximately 16% in German, 16% in Russian, 10% in French, Italian and Spanish, 5% in Japanese, and 3% for all others. As far as the field of organic chemistry is concerned, which is the domain of the INDEX CHEMICUS, even an original article in Japanese, with or without an English summary, can usually be comprehended by the organic chemist simply by referring to the structural diagrams. Furthermore, most Japanese journals do provide English abstracts.

I cannot dispute the distinct possibility that many articles abstracted by Mr. Schwartz may not appear in other forms. However, he would be hard pressed to establish the general validity of this point. Even more important, perhaps, is my contention that much of the data that originally appears in these obscure journals also turns up elsewhere.

Though I appreciate the zeal with which Mr. Schwartz talks about his work as an abstractor and respect his sincerity (I, too, was an abstractor for CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS for many years), I must ask, “What has this to do with the intrinsic value of CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS?” Do abstractors who are paid reasonable salaries serve science less? While not taking the position that CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS should necessarily be kept in the black, I cannot accept the proposition that non-chemists should be made to support a service for which chemists are not willing and/or able to pay. Mr. Schwartz obviously likes CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS, but he is not really willing to pay the cost of producing it. The true cost of producing CA is, of course, still not manifested in the proposed price changes. Imagine what the cost would be without the free contributions of time and effort of devoted abstractors such as Mr. Schwartz.

Although CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS has served the chemical community well for many years and continues to have certain utility for some, there remains little doubt at this point that CA has long since failed to meet the current awareness requirements of most users. The newer services that Mr. Schwartz names have evolved in an attempt to satisfy this and other unfulfilled needs of chemists, pharmacologists, documentalists, etc.

The real issue is not whether or not CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS can be replaced in every detail by any other publication or combination of publications. Rather, is CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS, in its present form, really essential? Could CA be further modified to meet the changed demands of modern interdisciplinary research? Has CA become, like others before it, obsolete, either for financial or other considerations? CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS, like all other services, must be constantly reevaluated. For instance, can CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS continue to interpret chemistry as broadly as it does? This breadth is the main reason for its growth rather than the increase in the pure chemical literature as such. At this time, another cause for reevaluation of abstracting services is the universal availability of facilities for obtaining photocopies.

Both the lethargic response to the request for comments on the proposed CA price changes as well as the growth of the newer services filling existing needs, strongly indicate that a total reevaluation of CHEMICAL ABSTRACTS is required rather than continuing the tacit assumption that it is here, will grow, is still fully justified, and its increasing costs must be paid for by someone, somewhere.

Eugene Garfield, Ph.D.
Institute for Scientific Information
325 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, Pa. 19106