A federated chemical information search?

There’s been an ongoing thread on the ChmInf-List – it started discussing Reaxys (what used to be Beilstein, Gmelin, and a property database, from Elsevier, sold as a site license, I think without limits on concurrent users) and whether it was worth it given searches of Beilstein on Crossfire Commander were dropping.It then morphed into a discussion of Scifinder (the primary way to search Chemical Abstracts, the primary literature database in chemistry. Scholar is the academic version – licensed by concurrent users. Scifinder itself is typically licensed by selling packages of searches called tasks).  The thread ranged on to discussions of privacy (ceded with requiring individual registrations for the web version of scifinder) and licenses for the two, and then the fact that the license for Scifinder Scholar says that institutions can’t share usage information with each other, the fact that SciFinder is required to have your chemistry major accredited by the ACS…

Along the way, someone mentioned that there was a limited version of Chem Abstracts available to search on other services (DIALOG) – it doesn’t have the structures and maybe some other things. I don’t know how I got on this topic – but I then suggested that if the license would allow it, it would be really cool to design a federated search specifically to deal with chemical properties.

Now I’ve been as skeptical of federated search as the next librarian and I also am a big fan of sophisticated searches that take advantage of the power of the local interface. But I also know that it’s not about the thrill of the chase, it’s about solving a problem. The ideal system is the one that gives you the best solution, the quickest, and also teaches you and gives you confidence in the answer.

What would be excellent is if you could federate a search across:

  • SciFinder
  • Reaxys
  • ChemNetBase (includes CRC handbook and the Combined Chemical Dictionary and other things)
  • ASM Handbooks and Phase Diagrams (this would of course be the materials science ASM)
  • SpringerMaterials (includes Landolt-Boernstein)
  • ChemSpider
  • maybe the CSA Materials Databases
  • whatever other appropriate stuff like if you have Knovel or BioRad’s Know it All U or whatever

Just as MetaLib (our federated search provider) has a fairly crappy interface out of the box, and required a lot of fixing… even with that fixing you couldn’t just throw that same solution at this search. First, this is a dream anyway because hardly any of these chemistry sources can be federated. Second, even if they could be federated, would the fields be there or would we only have title, author, subject? What would you display in the results beyond the value (if possible) and the citation?

So anyway, I suggested this and a retired professor posted to the list essentially yelling at me and others on the list for daring to

  1. discuss Scifinder on an open list (he said it should be on scholartalk but HELLO, I don’t have access to scholar!)
  2. call SciFinder a database (well it is, so there)
  3. suggest that SciFinder could be federated

I’m amazed and thankful for the chemical information pioneers who made what we have today possible, but I am nowhere near content to leave it as such. By tying our hands about what we can discuss, they’re hurting themselves in the end, because a large innovative community should be a resource not a threat.

Enough for now – none of the comments on this particular idea came from any official representatives of CAS or Elsevier. CAS’ policies are clear in the licensing agreements.

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