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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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August 28, 2006

Paper on a Shelf

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Posted by Derek

Today while walking through the library I passed the shelves where the Chemical Abstracts indices still sit. They don't appear to have been touched in some time - I certainly haven't disturbed them.

CA is the repository for abstracts of almost all the papers that bear on chemistry throughout the world's scientific literature, and for data on all the chemical compounds that are described in them. It's one of the largest compendia of reference data in the world, as you'd expect. For many years, it was available only as a print edition, because, well, everything was available only in a print edition.

Every five years a collective index would be issued, to great rejoicing. These included indices by author, by chemical formula, by compound name, and so on. I remember when the 10th index came out, which covered the 1977-1981 literature, so I guess I go back to the 9th edition, although I'd never had much need (or ability) to use it while it was current. The coverage of the 10th index, though, ran from a year when I knew little or no chemistry to a time when I'd finished my sophomore organic course and had some idea of what the papers it referenced were talking about.

The 11th came out while I was in graduate school, and man, was I glad to see it. The 10th had become rather ancient in the meantime, and my need for access to the literature had reached unheard-of levels as I wrestled with my PhD. Digging through the more recent volume-by-volume indices to catch up had become quite painful. But it in its turn began to show its age. The 12th collective index showed up after I'd been in industry for three years or so, and I was glad to see it as well. We had a library staff that would look things up for you, but I still found them no substitute for going down and digging around firsthand. I gave that edition a good workout, and I remember being quite distressed when the rows of softcover volumes disappeared for a while for binding.

But things changed. The 13th index, from 1992 to 1996, is the last one whose physical covers I ever opened, and I think that was only once or twice. The library here never even bothered to get it hardbound, and the big softcover volumes are slumped against each other on their shelves. I have never even seen a copy of the 14th index, and I wonder how many copies of next year's 15th will even be printed. Whether there will even be a hard-copy version of the 16th in 2012 is anyone's guess, but I'd be willing to bet against it.

What happened, naturally, was the machine that you're using to read this blog. Even while I was in graduate school, you could access Chemical Abstracts via a command-line interface through one of those rockin' 1200 baud modems, and I was the person in our research group designated as the high priest. There was one terminal in the library hooked up, with a special key to open the door. I still have copies of the manual pages somewhere in my files. I'm kind of surprised that I don't have the key as well, but they must have made sure that it was turned in.

The first time I used CAS Online, I felt as if I'd been given magical powers. Wildcards! Variable atoms and chain lengths! I talked everyone's ears off about the kind of searching that could be done, and as I recall, the big issue was convincing people that the online method differed not only in degree, but in kind. You could, of course, do things that were completely impossible to do with the print edition, a fact that is mostly appreciated now by people who are at least 40 years old. That is, people who have done it the old way. Fewer and fewer do, and good riddance to it.

If you'd parted the curtain of Time and shown me 2006 literature searching on a 2006 computer, I'd probably have fainted. Similarly, if you'd told me back in 1985 that I never would see the 14th CA Collective Index or any past it, I probably would have taken it as a prophecy of nuclear war. Something better happened instead.

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. SleeplessInSF on August 28, 2006 9:35 PM writes...

Ahh, memories. There were two yearly volumes past the 10th collective in print when I started grad school, and how I loathed and resented those two. By the time the 11th came out, I didn't know how I was going to stand another day without it. My lab never did get online access to CA, but other groups in our department were set up as yours was -- with a single keeper of the key, charged with ensuring that searches were done efficently and more importantly, at night. I have rarely used the print editions since grad school and can't remember the last time I actually saw a copy, but I can still vividly remember the placement of every volume in the chemistry department library.

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2. secret milkshake on August 28, 2006 9:38 PM writes...

going through general substance/subject index to supplement (the outdated) Beilstein compendiums was slooow but it had its own rewards: often you would find useful things that you were not looking for.

And the undescribable and exciting musty smell of compiled knowledge.../

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3. qetzal on August 28, 2006 9:53 PM writes...

Derek, you forgot the part about how we had to walk 5 miles through the snow, uphill both ways, to get to the library. Grumble, grumble, snot-nosed scientists today don't know how good they have it, grumble, grumble....


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4. Jose on August 28, 2006 10:29 PM writes...

Milkshake- I agree; there was something very, very satisfying about poking through the high density shelves in the darkest, quietest corner of the basement to open pages from JChemSoc (1955) or some other obscure journal to find a splendid experimental. I don't think I can even remember the number of times a paper journal, or a listing in the Merck, has lead me to very useful previously unknown information. I worries me slightly to realize that all of this is going away; SciFinder and Beilstein are great, but only as good as the abstractors, and well, humans are known to be imperfect now and then.

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5. Canuck Chemist on August 28, 2006 10:33 PM writes...

Derek, that was a great post, especially for the practicing organic chemists in the audience. Though I haven't yet entered my third decade, I've been around long enough to remember doing a paper abstract search while on a work term at a small process company nearly 10 years ago. I remember spending an entire afternoon in the library searching for papers related to a (rather ludicrous) proposed synthesis I had come up with, so today I am greatly appreciative of the speed with which I can perform detailed searches and have the original literature on my computer screen. Working at a big university in particular, I'm very thankful that I can get most of what I want on-line, NOW, even old publications. Pretty much any papers I look at which are at all interesting can be saved conveniently on my computer, along with digital comments, highlighting, etc. courtesy of Adobe. It's a bit sad, actually, that the visits to the bricks-and-mortar library are getting to be few and far between. It was a bit inspiring to find a dusty old copy of JACS on the shelf with a nearly forgotton (but useful) old procedure. That being said, I wouldn't hesitate to trade that for the convenience of looking up references for my proposal with one eye on the hockey game at home.

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6. kiwi on August 29, 2006 1:31 AM writes...

the downside of this modern age is of course the prohibitive fees for database tools such as scifinder, putting such a wonderful tool out of reach of those in smaller industry, coupled with the ever decreasing access to paper CAS volumes. life must be tough on the outside.

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7. Anonymous on August 29, 2006 2:03 AM writes...

FYI kiwi, in bad old days when I needed to do CAS search in Pague, I took a subway (only about 45 min ride from my lab) and then some refreshing walk. I was lucky: there was one institute in the entire post-commie Czechoslovakia that had complete 5-year cummulative Chem Abstract indexes in the library - and I lived only one hour away.

(Our library had a beautiful line of Berichte and Liebig's Annalen going back to 18 century but only the unbound soft-cover bi-anual CAS indexes to get you through the modern times...)

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8. Andy on August 29, 2006 3:26 AM writes...

"Though I haven't yet entered my third decade, I've been around long enough to remember doing a paper abstract search while on a work term at a small process company nearly 10 years ago."

Does that not mean you were pre-teens at the time?

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9. dances with ketones on August 29, 2006 3:28 AM writes...

Of course, a non-academic used to be able to walk into a library and actually get *access* to this literature. As a chemistry major who is no longer in academia, there's no way I can get access to any of this literature.

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10. s on August 29, 2006 4:57 AM writes...

I will turn 30 in the spring, and this certainly brings back memories! I don't think that you need to be in your 40s to remember using print volumes of Chem Abstracts.

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11. daen on August 29, 2006 5:41 AM writes...

My chemistry education began in earnest three years ago, after a two decade computing science and finance career. I'm now developing a compound registration and retrieval system. Developing the back-end database part of that has been rendered almost trivial by the availability of chemical and reaction Oracle database add-ins from MDL. What amazes me today is that chemists actually got any research done without access to online chemical search tools. Respect.

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12. Petros on August 29, 2006 7:57 AM writes...

Takes me back. I was amazed when the first CD collective index became available (11th?), But trawling through 5 years worth of paper biennial indices was a chore.

I alwsys used to like it when I trawled back to the early volumes of CA since abstracts were ofetn sufficently detailed so as to avoid needing to get an old paper in German. It also maused me how many different binders we had for earlier volumes as a complete set had been acquired from various sources- not baed when we ranged from 3 to 8 chemists in the department!

Beilsten was never as pleasurable to use becuase of the esoteric classification system and becuase it was (then) all in German

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13. Professor Honeydew on August 29, 2006 8:06 AM writes...

OK, I have to comment on this one. I entered the chemical literature in 1983 as an undergraduate doing a synthetic honours project. For us chemists "of a certain age" the original post and many of the comments are just too resonant. Yes, you may now be able to search the literature from your favorite stall in the washroom BUT the reality was that when we needed a break from the frustration and worry of graduate work we could always retreat to a corner of the library with a stack of current journals or the most current issue of Chemical Abstracts and legitimately say that we were still contributing to our research. We have NOT replaced the time we spent in the library doing more research, we have replaced it with (somewhat ironically) ... computers and the internet. We are human and we still need to take a break but much of what we do on the internet does not really line up with the literature work that we used to do. One of the most important lessons that my students (undergraduate and graduate) have to learn is the disciplined use of the internet. I have "lost" several good students who could not pull themselves away and do real research.

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14. Demosthenes by Day on August 29, 2006 8:40 AM writes...

The thoughts on Chem Abstracts are walks down memory lane for me. A thorny, weed choked memory lane to be sure. The other aspect that online SciFinder/Beilstein has done is to level the playing field for some. My associates now approach me with ideas generated by doing their own searches when confronted with a synthetic problem. In years past when I would suggest a trip to the library to look things up my associates would act as if I'd asked them to make diazomethane in a scratched up Erlenmeyer. It also allows me to have discussions, when my associates present me with two or three ideas generated out of their online searching, on how to best prioritize the choices based on chance of success.
I also have to mention the other great invention that goes almost concurrently with online searching and that is ChemDraw. As one who had to use transfers, templates and Koh-i-noor fine point pens to draw structures for papers and my dissertation; ChemDraw is another thing that is a beautiful by-product of the computer revolution.

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15. Jonathan Gitlin on August 29, 2006 9:15 AM writes...

I think over in the biological world our equivalent would be Index Medicus. I remember, as a first year undergrad in 1994, being shown how to use it to search for papers, and thanking god that Pubmed was here to save the day two years later during my extramural year!

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16. troy on August 29, 2006 9:56 AM writes...

it's funny, because those who appreciate the magical powers of online databases seem to be the ``old timers'' (at least those who have used the paper version of the CA). but as secret milkshake pointed out, you do learn some other things (other than the one you are searching for) by doing lit search the old fashion way. and as with professor honeydew, today's undergrads have to learn the disciplined use of the internet. given the slow nature of lit search then, it's amazing how much research scientists were able to accomplish then. but we're getting more and more information everyday, and access to recent results will be available, literally, tomorrow. well, i guess, it's not funny after all.

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17. Don B. on August 29, 2006 10:36 AM writes...

I agree with kiwi & secretmilkshake. If you cannot afford scifinder you are up s--t creek.

The local college has put not only the hard copy of CAS but the Indices in "dry storage". They will probably be a great feast for silverfish.
It is a sad commentary on what a LIBRARY should be!

I suppose I should sign this as "an old foggy".

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18. MolecularGeek on August 29, 2006 1:58 PM writes...

Somehow, I don't miss those days too much either. Now, it helps that I am an institution with a site license for SciFinder, and that most of my current interests get coverage in PubMed. Sitting buried in the bowels of the stacks with back copies of the literature is a good way to get some downtime, but I never met a library chair as comfortable as my desk chair, and I have all my favorite references at my fingertips here too.

As others have pointed out, the cost of all this convenience is information overlad. A case in point is when my fiancee was doing her latest round. She came upon a reference to a paper that might be relevant in an obscure Polish biological journal. A generation ago, if she hadn't tracked it down and had it translated, or if she hadn't even seen it, nobody would have blinked twice, but in the new digital age, you never know who in the study section may have come across the paper and decide it is seminal to the matter at hand. I certainly don't advocate being sloppy in literature searches, but now it seems that quantity is substituted for quality and trying to backtrack through the literature to learn more about specific techniques is nigh on impossible without a subscription to SCI/Thompson ISI (another tool that I can't believe people start grad school without knowing of).

To date myself, I am of the last generation of chemistry undergraduates who were told that we needed to take German in college because if we did graduate work in organic, we would have to cope with Beilstein, and if it was in inorganic, Gmelin loomed large. I actually had learned to do Index Medicus and Chem Abstracts searches in high school working on projects in the summer. After my second year of undergrad, I worked for the summer in the analytical labs of a major chemicals producer, and started asking questions of the process people I supported about a synthesis I was going to have to try in the fall in independant study. The keyholder took me over to an old Textronics 4104 and introduced me to the world of Maccs and Reaccs. Needless to say, my world changed rapidly thereafter.


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19. rxlynn on September 8, 2006 3:48 PM writes...

Boy does this bring back memories from grad school! I loved getting to go down to the library and dig through journals, as it got me out of the lab. I'm just old enough to have missed the great computer revolution in the university setting the first time around. However, I started my pharmacy school career a couple of weeks ago, and the most outstanding difference to me so far (besides the fact that I'm old enough to be the parent of a lot of my classmates) is how computer usage is so seamlessly woven into the course materials. Sometimes I still miss the smell of the stacks, though!

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20. anon on September 9, 2006 2:48 AM writes...

You look for something,and you find something else; that serendipity is gone.

also looking at the bound volumes with gold letering in the spine and feeling like a part of the continuity of science.

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