Five Reasons Why Chemical Societies Need Free Databases and Web Services

May 15, 2009

For those who may not have seen the news, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) earlier this week announced the acquisition of ChemSpider, the free database of chemical structures and related data. The tone of the press releases and commentary around the Web has been congratulatory, which is to be expected given the dedication and hard work by ChemSpider's creators. And much of the discussion focuses on what the chemistry community gains by the move. But there's much more to the story.

What's in it for RSC?

What's lacking in the public discussion is a clear explanation of what one of chemistry's oldest institutions hopes to gain by acquiring one of its newest.

Times are tough all over, and the scientific publishing business is no exception. This year the American Chemical Society (ACS) announced cuts to its staff and employee benefits programs amid declining revenues and investment returns, a situation unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon.

Although a service like ChemSpider can be created very inexpensively, growth and maintenance will likely require significant resource commitment. Neither the RSC nor ChemSpider offer any indication of how the service will break even, much less contribute to RSC's bottom line.

The Big Picture

Chemical societies around the world are likely to be quite interested in what happens from here.

In years past, paid database and journal subscriptions laid the foundation for many of the activities supported by the largest chemical societies. But the paid subscription model sits in the crossfire of several long-term trends, most notably price increases that habitually outpace the rate of inflation, severe budget cuts in both academia and industry, and the emergence of dozens of free chemistry databases, Web services, and other communication channels beyond ChemSpider.

What's in it for You?

If you work for or are otherwise involved with a chemical society, what does the creation or acquisition of a free Web service like Chemspider do for you? Here, in no particular order, are some possibilities:

  1. Consult your Mission Statement. The RSC is dedicated to the "advancement of chemistry as a science, the dissemination of chemical knowledge, and the development of chemical applications." Many societies share similar statements of purpose. Free Web services represent one of the most cost-effective ways to achieve this goal.
  2. Nontraditional revenue sources. No, we're not talking about advertising, although that's a possibility. Just because a Web service is "free" doesn't mean that all of its services need to be. For but one example, consider that many in industry are concerned about the information revealed by company employees' queries on public Web services. There are many ways to address these concerns - and create revenue in the process. With even a small amount of creativity, many more opportunities like this can likely be found.
  3. Increased visibility for your other products and services. Google does it. IBM does it. Hundreds of smaller companies you may never have heard of do it. They've all built permission assets as a way to more effectively communicate their message to people who matter to them. Chemists will routinely ignore (and even scorn) your advertisements. How likely are they to ignore a free Web service that solves their problem?
  4. Increase the reach and cohesion of your community. ChemSpider is one of the few public-facing chemistry databases that accept community-created information. Users of a system who only consume information have little stake in it. Users who contribute tend to be much more involved in the process, and the organization behind it.
  5. Winner takes all. Quick - what's the second most popular search engine. What's the second most popular online encyclopedia? What's the second most popular video sharing site? What's the second most popular microblogging service? What's the second most popular photo sharing site? You've heard of all of the front runners, even if don't use them. Have you even heard of any of the also-rans? When it comes to free online resources, winner takes all. By avoiding the creation of free online resources, you run the real risk of rendering your chemical society irrelevant.

Conclusions

The Web is in the process of changing the operating rules for every organization, particularly in information-rich technical fields like chemistry. If your chemical society ignores the changes now underway, then what exactly is its plan for staying relevant?