Until 1966, Chemical Abstracts Service used volunteers exclusively to abstract the chemical literature. At the system's peak, thousands of scientists were willing and even enthusiastic to perform this tedious, demanding work for very little pay. The system was eventually phased out in favor of the professional abstracting service that replaced it.
What motivated these volunteer abstracters? Enlightened self-interest probably played a role. After all, preparing a set of abstracts in a field you do research in can pay off in your own increased productivity. It's also a good way to stay current with the literature, something you would do anyway. If your abstracts help your fellow scientist at the same time, so much the better. Another motivation could have been a simple desire to create order out of chaos, not unlike the many social networking activities flourishing on the internet today. Christoph Steinbeck will be giving a talk at the Fall 2006 ACS touching on this theme, and it's likely others will too as the field gathers momentum.
Surely this couldn't be the only example of online volunteer-created reviews in chemistry on Wikipedia. A quick search resulted in numerous examples:
- Wittig Reaction
- Grignard Reaction
- Sharpless Dihydroxylation
- Diels-Alder Reaction
- Thermite Reaction
- Danishefsky Taxol Total Synthesis
- Olefin Metathesis
- McMurry Coupling
- Robinson Annulation
- Swern Oxidation
The proliferation of this kind of volunteer, peer-reviewed chemical documentation is similar in spirit to that used by CAS in earlier times, although the technology couldn't be more different. Of course, this approach is not without its limitations and potential pitfalls, but it is remarkably self-correcting. This emerging system offers something that CAS will never be able to provide - involvement in, and ownership of, the documentation process itself.
Unfortunately, chemical informatics technologies have not kept up with internet technologies and the people currently using them. The reliance on raster images of 2-D structures, and the lack of a reliable web-enabled chemical indexing system both loom especially large as future problems to be addressed. What tools does this new kind of chemical publishing need to become more effective and efficient? How can these tools be made as invisible as possible?