Column Editor: Myer Kutz (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.)
I suppose it was because I came out of book publishing (I’d been an author of an engineering book, a book about the Rockefeller family, and half a dozen paperbacks, including novels and quickie biographies, as well as an acquisitions editor for monographs in mechanical engineering and related fields ) that it wasn’t natural and thus slow for me to develop a real appreciation for the usefulness, if not majesty, of abstract and indexing (A&I) services. Oh sure, I’d used The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature now and then. Did I thumb through print volumes of Engineering Index in the old Engineering Societies Library in New York after I moved to Manhattan in the late 1960’s? That I might have done so does ring a bell, but its sound is very faint.
In any case, shortly after I established an electronic publishing division at Wiley in the early 1980’s and we were approached by the business people at the Harvard Business Review (HBR) to put their bibliographic information online, I agreed to do so if we could pair it up with full text of the articles. I believed that the bibliographic information wasn’t enough to attract users. We couldn’t put any illustrations online, as I remember, but we got enough usage overall to exceed the $75,000 annual revenue guarantee that I’d given HBR.
When it came to Wiley’s own journals, there was great consternation that if I put full text online, I would cannibalize revenues. How quaint such an attitude seems now. As it happened, there were no composition tapes for the journals, so any loss-of-revenue fears were moot. But there were composition tapes at Mack Printing Company for the 26-volume Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. It was a heavyweight product, but I was permitted to put full text online anyway.
Bibliographic Retrieval Services (BRS) had the technical chops to mount the full text, including chemical formulae, etc. (before Chemical Abstracts had the technology), so we could just go ahead. I gave a talk once in which I said that putting Kirk-Othmer online was as much a market research project as a effort to make money, and I can remember Bill Marovitz, the BRS honcho, sitting in the back of the room smiling and nodding. In the end, of course, I didn’t lay a glove on Kirk-Othmer’s revenue stream. It was too early, and besides, librarians were complaining of “false drops,” which must have depressed usage.
Diane Hoffman was one of the people I met at BRS at this time. Trained as a librarian, she’d worked at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), Gene Garfield’s indexing company. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Diane reveres him. “He’s the most fascinating person I ever worked with,” she said during a recent telephone conversation. “He used to think, what else can we do with this data? What does our database teach about science?”
Diane and I kept in touch after I moved on at Wiley to run all of the scientific and technical publishing. We began working together again when she was vice-president of marketing and distribution at BIOSIS and I’d left Wiley and was working as an independent consultant. (She was VP there from 1992 to 1998 and an independent contractor in 1999. In addition to BRS and BIOSIS, her long and what she calls “chequered” career creating and marketing information products to life science researchers and librarians includes stints at ProQuest and Cambridge Scientific Abstracts. Her retirement activities include a bit of gardening, birding, museum-going, and reading. We’ve been friends all the while.)
BIOSIS started in 1926 as Biological Abstracts. (There are two published histories, one covering the first 50 years, another the first 75.) It partnered with life science researchers; it was sold by teaching biology students and faculty how to use the volumes, which came out every two weeks. Biological Abstracts was divided into subject areas, so faculty could visit their library every two weeks to quickly catch up on what was being published of immediate interest to them. Biological Abstracts actually started out writing abstracts, but eventually took abstracts that journal articles made available. BIOSIS staff continued to do the indexing by hand. It was very expensive, but the product was authoritative.
In the nineties, BIOSIS was one of the most important A&I services. Chemical Abstracts, Engineering Index (Compendex), Psych Abstracts, the Reader’s Guide, and the Derwent patent database were some of the others. Libraries paid the bills for these services, which they always had done, and Diane’s predecessor, Art Elias, focused marketing more on librarians than researchers. That, together with the name change from Biological Abstracts to BIOSIS, caused some loss of recognition among researchers.
By now, of course, younger researchers wanted everything digital. Engineering Index and Chemical Abstracts, for example, went digital in the mid-1990s. Diane thought that BIOSIS’ missed opportunity was to not build an online service that combined A&I with other tools, such as notebooks, methods, etc. Trouble was, BIOSIS didn’t know how to even create an electronic database of its own legacy materials. I worked with Diane on a potential new product — a database associated with methods used in life science laboratories. The idea was to cull lists of researchers who used particular methods. An objective of this service was to enable researchers to see how a method was adapted by someone else to perform another experiment in the most effective way. Unfortunately, when Thomson bought BIOSIS, it had little interest in this intriguing product.
BIOSIS Previews, which combines Biological Abstracts — it covers some 5,000 journals — with Biological Abstracts/Reports, Reviews, Meetings (BA/RRM), is now part of something called Clarivate Analytics Web of Science. At the end of my long conversation with Diane, we wondered who uses BIOSIS anymore. I brought up my old doubts about A&I services, which now are focused on their viability in this age of Google and the availability, particularly on major research campuses, of the full texts of journals. “A&I services are still being created for librarians,” she said, but expressed doubts similar to mine.
A couple of days later she took ownership of the doubts — I’ll give her the last word — and sent me this email: “HA! Now that you have got me thinking again, I followed up on my own question, are A&I services relevant in the age of full text access and Google. Well, that is a simple statement given I did not state relevant to whom and for what. But it appears that they ARE relevant to researchers for validating the value of journals in which they publish, especially when they are up for tenure. Who knew?
“Librarians still value them for things like ‘undiscovered drugs,’ species information (some species have only been reported when first seen in, for example, 1973), older materials of relevance, etc. HOWEVER, new things do not appear in the A&I scientific databases because the time to publish new findings is so long, and then you can add on an additional 6-8 months to appear in an A&I service. So sometimes newspapers and conference proceedings are a better way to find new research than retrospective databases.”