1908 and All That: The Long Tail and Chemistry

May 07, 2008

Quite a few American Chemical Society (ACS) divisions are celebrating their 100th anniversaries this year. While this fact may at first glance seem like just a piece of nerdy trivia, Rudy Baum, Editor-in-chief of C&E News decided to dig deeper. And what he found was the Long Tail of chemistry, alive and well - in 1908.

In his editorial, Baum describes how he looked for the causes of the sudden appearance of so many ACS divisions in 1908. At its core, he found a growing realization on the part of influential chemists at the time that ACS membership was becoming too diverse in their interests and areas of specialization:

Specialization in subdisciplines of chemistry was also much on ACS members' minds in these years. Some members felt strongly that subdivisions of some sort should be created in the society to provide a venue for chemists from these areas to meet separate from the society as a whole. It was noted that chemists were going off and forming their own specialized organizations in areas like electrochemistry, biological chemistry, and agricultural chemistry.

As early as 1903, ACS established a committee of five distinguished members to look into this issue, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Arthur A. Noyes as the chairman. (Throughout its history, ACS has responded to challenges by creating committees!) The committee reported to the ACS Council at its June 1, 1903, meeting, and strongly recommended that "Divisions of the Society be established representing different important branches of chemistry."

For those familiar with the work of Chris Anderson, what's being described is nothing other than the Long Tail:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

How much money does it cost to set up a new ACS division? Probably not that much. How big is the field of chemistry? Vast. Put the two together, and you have a recipe for today's ACS. A recent Depth-First article described this phenomenon. And C&E News itself maintains a (static?) blog on the Long Tail as it applies to chemical employment.

What does any of this have to do with chemical informatics? Although it may be tempting to think of chemists as a homogeneous group sharing a great deal of experience and knowledge, the proliferation of ACS divisions suggests otherwise. It seems reasonable to think that successful chemical information systems would do well to take this into account in their design and implementation.