Peculiarities of Chemical Information

September 03, 2006

Chemistry has at its disposal a language of such uniformity at the international level and of such clarity as is scarcely found in any other discipline. It consists of the structural formula. Even texts in an unfamiliar foreign language are relatively comprehensible for the chemist, if structural formulas are amply included in the text. ...

Robert Fugmann, J. Chem. Inf. Comput. Sci. 1985, 25, 174-180

Fugmann goes on to observe some other points that distinguish chemical information from the information of other fields:

  • It's Hard for Computers to Deal with Chemical Structures. The chemical structure may be a universally understandable language for humans, but not for computers. Searching for chemical structures requires much more advanced and computationally intensive technologies than searching for text. These factors place constraints on chemical information systems not present in other fields.
  • Chemical Information is Durable. Chemical information has a very long shelf life. A synthetic procedure written 100 years ago can be just as useful as one written this month. The resulting demand for depth of coverage by chemists is unparalleled.
  • Chemical Information is Context-Neutral. Chemical information generated in one field (say, organometallic chemistry) is frequently used in a very different field (say, polymer chemistry). If anything, the trend over the last twenty years has been toward more interdisciplinary chemical research. Naturally, chemists demand that breadth of coverage in their information systems be correspondingly high.

Whatever advances are made in information technology itself, these peculiarities of chemical information will likely remain. Information systems that take these factors into account have the best chance of serving their users well.