OF BIOMEDICAL INFORMATION

           Presented at the Sixth Annual Session of the Medical Writers’ Institute,
                           Princeton Club,New York, NY. October 5 1963

                                        Eugene Garfield, Ph D., Director
                                       Institute for Scientific Information
                                                  Philadelphia 3, PA.

As a group of medical writers I don't think it is necessary that I explain to you, in great detail, my own definitions for terms like information storage and retrieval. By now you must be aware that like most words in common usage, there is a considerable amount of ambiguity in these terms, Nor do I feel it is necessary to explain why the topic of bio-medical information must inevitably turn into a discussion of scientific information. All human knowledge is intertwined. Particularly in research today, the boundaries between so-called classical specialties have completely disappeared. Finally, you are all aware, no doubt, of the enormous growth of scientific research in the past ten to twenty years. Partly as a direct effect of this growth, and also because of technological advances in instrumentation there has resulted the so-called information explosion.

The Institute for Scientific Information, of which I am the Director, as indicated in the blue brochure which you have all received, was born of the necessity for scientists to keep abreast of research developments -- and our desire to satisfy those needs. A number of publications and services have been developed and refined during the past ten years though the institute only adopted its name four years ago after it had grown too large to be identified by the former name of Eugene Garfield Associates.

The first of three separate editions of Current Contents was begun in 1956 under the absurd name of Management's DocuMation Preview. Obviously I didn't think it absurd then! This publication later became Current Contents of Social and Management Sciences and was suspended last year because, after seven years it had not really caught on.  Incidentally, there was a predecessor begun in 1954 called Contents In Advance which covered the literature of Library Science and Documentation.  It also ceased publication a few years ago.

In 1958, we began to publish Current Contents of Pharmaco-Medical Publications. I must confess that in those days I was not overly conscious that it would be so enthusiastically adopted by scientists in the universities.  It was expressly designed for the pharmaceutical industry and its title stressed that.

The function of Current Contents is deceivingly simple.  There are just too many journals in the world for one man to read them all.  If he tried, he would not only fail, but would not get any research done in the lab.  Sometimes the latter result might be more beneficial to humanity, but that is not for you and me to decide.

By grouping together in a single convenient, pocket-size publication the tables of contents of medical and scientific journals, Current Contents would save the scientist the chore of physically handling and hunting down journals in the library.  It would also cut down a lot of journal routing lists.  Current Contents would also solve an important timing problem.  Scientists, like reporters, don’t like to be scooped.  Current Contents, by providing information either quite currently or even in advance, could help prevent this situation from developing.  Furthermore, many organizations were already providing a similar service to their staffs.  We thought we could save them a lot of money by use of mass production methods.  This was quite true, but it took us a long time to convince people of this simple truth.  Actually it was the firms who did not have such a service who adopted Current Contents first.  In fact, there still remains one significant holdout about whom we say jokingly at ISI, each year for the last seven years – well, maybe they will change to Current Contents this year.  I say all this to remind you that in the publishing game, like so many others, your plans and expectations rarely turn out exactly as you expected.

When Current Contents began, we covered 200 journals.  Each weekly issue was about thirty or forty pages.  Every month we added a few more journals, fearing each time that we had reached the saturation point.  We did not want to make the mistake that other services had made – overloading the circuits – by trying to be all things to all men—by trying to be absolutely comprehensive in every branch of chemistry, biology and medicine.

Today we cover close to 700 journals which publish about 125,000 articles per year. We have slowed down the rate of new additions considerably and as a result of a recent readers' survey we are deleting several journals that are not wanted by most readers.

A few years ago, we also began to provide the addresses of authors so that readers could write directly to their colleagues for reprints. This was done in spite of the fact that we operate a very efficient and prompt service called OATS -- Original Article Tear Sheets in which we will provide any reader with a tear sheet of any article listed in Current Contents. The cost of this service, though quite reasonable, is still out of reach for academic people who prefer to obtain “free” reprints by writing postcards.

Our recent survey showed that the average reader of Current Contents sent about 10 to 15 such postcards per week. Since there are now an estimated 40,000 readers of Current Contents, this represents a staggering number of reprints. However, these figures happen to coincide with figures obtained from Dr. Milton Lee, of the Federation of American Society of Experimental Biology.  Some quick figuring shows that Current Contents may account for the initiation of five to twenty million reprint requests per year! In addition to this, we have ample evidence that Current Contents has stimulated greater use of the journal literature, resulting in more subscriptions for publishers --  upon whom we depend for cooperation.

In 1961, we also began a Space amid Physical Sciences edition of Current Contents, which is also gradually taking hold. However, the acceptance is bound to be slower because physicists and engineers do not seem to rely, as yet, as heavily on the literature as do biologists and medical scientists.

What makes Current Contents so popular? A lot of theories have been offered including those we have advertised and those I mentioned before…. It is convenient, it helps the user keep up with the literature in his or her field  or related fields,  etc. However, the most significant use, I believe, is one which the reader himself almost never mentions…the educational function.

Quite some time ago, I relinquished the production task of Current Contents into the very capable hands of my Associate Director, Mr. Marvin Schiller and our Managing Editor, Miss Beverly Bartolomeo.  This meant, among other things, that I could become a reader of Current Contents and react to it more as a user rather than as a producer.  I spend about half an hour going through each issue and in that short time I get a feeling for the concepts, relationships, new terminology, etc. related to what is going on in research – even though I may not order any original articles to read.  In short, I get a capsule view of research.  However, I also find that I see titles of articles in my own area of research in the most unexpected places.

As an information scientist, my informational needs vary considerably.  However, let’s face it… People like to read headlines.  To me each issue of Current Contents is a condensation of the headlines appearing in a lot of scientific newspapers.  I think you will confirm this by scanning the sample issue we have distributed.  I might add that contrary to one theory about Current Contents, it is far from the lazy man’s approach to the literature.  Our surveys have shown that, unquestionably, the reader of Current Contents is an avid consumer of literature – he reads many journals, books, etc.   He is generally well informed in his field – like the ad in The Wall Street Journal says : “he is the man who gets ahead and keeps ahead.”

I’ve tried to give you so many reasons why Current Contents is a simple though effective device for covering a lot of scientific literature … as Dr. Ethan Allan Brown said in Medical Economics: for getting the meat out of 700 journals.  However, I am neither so naive nor presumptuous to assume that it is a panacea for the scientist needing information.  Documentation problems have a way of breeding solutions which, in turn, breed new problems.  Current Contents is doing an effective job today.  Ten years from now it may be a relic in the history of scientific documentation.  On the other hand, it may flourish even more, according to developments in scientific publication.  We hear a lot of talk about the scientific journals being obsolete means of communicating  information, even though almost every one that I know is having increased circulation as a result of research growth.

In the field of organic chemistry and pharmacology, there is a job that Current Contents cannot do effectively.  In 1960, when I began the publication of the Index Chemicus, I felt that neither Chemical Abstracts, nor any other publication, did an effective job because the basic problem in this special field is one that any good communicator understands – graphics.  The language of the chemist involves the structural diagrams – the ideographs of chemicals.  The Index Chemicus, also published bi-weekly by the Institute since 1960 and cumulated as the Encyclopedia Chimica Internationalis, now exceeds eleven large volumes containing diagrams for over 300,000 new chemical compounds and over 33,000 abstracts from the world’s chemical literature.

Just as the Index Chemicus is designed to meet the specialized needs of the organic chemist, we have long been interested in a method of meeting the individual, specialized requirements of all scientists.  This is obviously a very ambitious goal but we think we have found the beginning of a solution in our new Science Citation Index.  The time available to me today does not permit a detailed description of the citation index.  You have received a number of reprints and brochures describing the citation index.  In a nutshell, the citation index will enable you to find out, quickly and conveniently, everything that has been said or done about a particular scientist’s work since it was first reported.

Thus, while the reader of Current Contents can tell in a general way whether he might be interested in an article by Whitnah in the Journal of Dairy Science on the Physical Properties of Milk, the physical chemist might not realize that this same article contains an important discussion of an equation by Albert Einstein on the measurement of molecular dimensions Einstein developed in 1905.  Through citation indexing, both the physical chemist and the dairy scientist could be alerted to the different aspects of this paper which might interest either of them.  We believe that the citation index attacks the heart of the communication problem – how to interpret the needs of different kinds of users for the same information.  Each man sees and hears and responds to signals in a different way.

As I said in my opening remarks – natural language is full of ambiguity.  As a structural linguist I attempt to assign unambiguous referential meanings to the words and phrases of scientific texts.  As a communicator, however, I must try to visualize all the different ways in which my words might be interpreted by my readers.  Unfortunately or fortunately, no man can anticipate every conceivable interpretation which can be placed on words, phrases, or documents.  Similarly, no human indexer can anticipate every conceivable interpretation that can be given to ideas and theories expressed in scientific papers.

However, our job at the Institute for Scientific Information, as disseminators and retrievers of information, is to lay before the scientist or the medical writer, as the case may be, the structure of the literature – it is to describe for him the existing network of ideas in man’s storehouse of knowledge, so that he can easily retrace the steps of previous writers, and then add his own personal interpretation of the facts – thereby changing the state of knowledge.  Then our information system must quickly reflect this changed state of knowledge – this learning process if you will – so that the next man can go through the same procedure in an efficient manner.  To have achieved such a goal will be an accomplishment, for which, you could not chastise us for taking great pride.  And that will not be the panacea either – citation indexing will also generate new possibilities.  The citation index reads like the contents page of an enormous science encyclopedia.  You people will be the ones to turn these outlines into meaningful articles of the world encyclopedia – what H.G. Wells called the World Brain.

The field of Information Science and Technology is growing by leaps and bounds.  The Institute for Scientific Information hopes to be on the frontiers of this field for some time to come.  As interpreters of science both to scientists and to the layman, we hope to have the benefit of your praise and criticism.  As a consequence, we think better and more socially useful information will result.

In closing, I would like to quote an article by Pearl S. Buck which appeared in last Sunday’s Philadelphia Bulletin Magazine (Sept. 29 1963).

“Leadership can be exercised in many ways, and the best way in our society, is by means of information.  The cult of personality, as the Communists put it, may indeed be dangerous.  But sound information based on scientific fact insofar as we know it can and does influence limbo minds.”  What is heaven?

“Heaven?  It is the state of total communication.  Buddhists call it Nirvana, but Nirvana is not the state of nothingness that it is sometimes thought to be in the West.  It is a state of everythingness, mind so distilled and purified by effective thought and action that we are aware without being told, aware of everyone and everything.”