Copyright©2009 Antony Williams
Conspiracy theories are fun. Most of us have seen a movie or read a book regarding some form of conspiracy theory – whether it’s something that is in our distant history, some interpretation of what happened on 9/11 (and there are no shortages of those) or some view on industrial espionage. They are fun. What is surprising is how many of them turn out to be true. There is a new conspiracy theory in our own domain and it relates to the InChI, the International Chemical Identifier. How does that story go?
I use Google Alerts to keep my eye on what is being said on the web about ChemSpider. It’s also how we keep track of what people think should be uploaded to ChemSpider using the loadtochemspider tag. So it was that I was made aware of an article mentioning ChemSpider. Later that day two people pointed me to the same article. Daniel Pollock at Outsell had published an article on March 30th 2009 entitled “Chemical Bonding InChI by InChI”. He discussed the InChI Resolver and the efforts to raise enthusiasm for the InChI. He also discussed the efforts of both Nature Publishing Group and the Royal Society of Chemistry to proliferate the use of InChIs. ChemSpider is a user and producer of InChIs. We like them..and also acknowledge they are not perfect. The mainstream chemistry software vendors like them. The cheminformatics domain has embraced them. Societies see InChI as an enabling standard. The InChI subcommittee continues to expand with participants. InChIs are added to many online databases now. InChI has arrived, warts and all, and we should be working together now to support its enhancements and use it to integrate information. Any publisher or producer in the domain of chemistry publishing and chemistry related information should be embracing the opportunities InChI offers – if not now then for sure in the future. There won’t be much choice because information will become increasingly available and interconnected and groups ignoring the InChI will become less relevant. It’s taken a decade for InChI to gain traction..but now momentum is increasong quickly.
Daniel’s article went on to comment on the present level of acceptance for InChI by the American Chemical Society and CAS and stated “However, given that CAS has been criticised for its proprietary approach in the past, and took until April 2008 to release a web based version of its flagship SciFinder database, in Outsell’s opinion we may have to wait a while yet.” Overall I thought that Daniel’s article was well-written and balanced and concluded with “Meanwhile, whilst we can see the reaction of the big chemistry publishers and abstraction services, we can reflect on a sobering question: why is it taking government and voluntary contributions to build an industry standard? Surely that should have be the territory of the information providers? In chemistry it seems, as everywhere, the web changes everything.” Good question.
I’d like to recommend that you go and read the article. Why not? Well, the article is not there anymore. It’s been withdrawn! While the first article was, in my opinion quite balanced, the retraction puzzles me. It states “in the Implications section we published information about Chemical Abstract Service’s highly-regarded SciFinder product that was incorrect, and we did not cite a sufficiently balanced set of references in developing our argument.” In the original article there is one mention of SciFinder and it says “and took until April 2008 to release a web based version of its flagship SciFinder database”. One statement, one reference..back to CAS’s own press release.
The retraction also stated “Further, it is our practice to avoid speculating about an organization’s stance on a topic without reaching out to the organization for on-the-record research briefings. Overall, the tone of the piece could be taken to single out CAS as being late in responding to the trends, and in our view the research and analysis did not support it.” I’ll interpret this as “no one spoke to CAS”. Ok…that’s fair comment. Someone should have spoken to CAS about this article and asked for their opinion. Maybe some questions might be: 1) It appears that InChI is already changing the way that chemistry related information can be linked for the benefit of the community. What are your observations and thoughts? 2) InChI has been around for over a decade and I am interested to know whether ACS and CAS will embrace the perceived value of InChI and the potential benefits to the community and include in either ACS articles or integrate into the CAS registry? 3) You recently released the CommonChemistry.org website and it is an interesting shift towards Openness by CAS. Congratulations. It would be an ideal opportunity to allow integration via InChIs. What type of feedback have you received from the community? 4) It would appear that the ongoing growth in informational resources such as PubChem, ChEBI, ChemSpider, Google Scholar, Wikipedia and many other rich resources can impact the business model of CAS. InChI-integrated resources and efforts such as the InChI Resolver allows connection of such resources in a seamless manner and will lead to a web-centric view of chemistry resources. How does CAS expect to respond to this potential threat?5) There are LOTS more questions that I believe the community would like to ask. Who in the scientific reporting community would get an audience with CAS to ask such questions?
Conspiracy theories are already moving around the community. The majority of people I have discussed this with believe that the retraction was likely forced by CAS and as Stuart Cantrill from Nature Chemistry points out in his blog “Outsell now say that the original article wasn’t balanced and that the ‘tone of the piece could be taken to single out CAS as being late in responding to the trends’. Surely readers could make that judgement for themselves?”.
I say decide for yourself. The article is in the Google Archives here. Welcome to the power of the web. Now then…can the removal of THAT article from the Google Archives be enforced? Hmm…..Stumble it!