In "Database Debate," C&EN noted controversy over the National Institutes of Health's database of chemical structural information, PubChem (April 25, page 5). The article reports statements by officials of Chemical Abstracts Service that "PubChem has overstepped its function" in producing this publicly accessible online database.
I presume that NIH would like to associate CAS Registry Numbers with the substances in this database and that CAS not only has refused to provide them, but views PubChem as a turf incursion.
The world has changed since CAS was the best source for abstracts of the chemical literature. We no longer require leagues of abstract writers, since most journals require submissions to include an abstract. Even interpreters, although still essential, have a diminished role with the advent of language-conversion software.
Our library has dropped its subscription to hard-copy Chemical Abstracts and funnels requests for literature searches through a single subscriber. For most purposes (in a health department), services from other search providers such as Ovid and ISI overlap what would be provided by CAS, and the expense is one we can do without.
In general, the American Chemical Society has done an admirable job of adapting the literature under its control with the advent of the Internet. Most, if not all, issues of the society's journals are accessible to subscribers under terms that compare favorably with those offered by other publishers.
This enlightened use of the Internet is not entirely true of CAS, which jealously guards every bit of information under its control. It could be argued that the CAS number is the most important unique descriptor of a substance and is thereby public currency which should be granted freely. It is a datum that can provide a link to all scientific literature for a substance and thus will bring people (not just chemists) to the ACS publications pertinent to their needs; these people could purchase that information for a small fee.
CAS has the ability to provide a database, not unlike PubChem, and the question becomes not one of NIH overstepping its function, but of CAS failing to adapt to potential new markets for its information. I pose this question: Why won't CAS provide me, a dues-paying chemist, with the information that PubChem is offering to the public? A follow-up question is this: Why won't CAS open to every person that portion of its database which would increase the accessibility of the chemical literature? This would not only benefit the public, but also the publishers of that information.
Robert G. Briggs