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Electronic access boosts power of reference book

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John Murphy finds out how Thieme Chemistry put a major reference work online

For nearly 100 years the Houben-Weyl series, recently renamed Science of Synthesis, has provided a key source of methodology information to organic chemists. Traditionally, bound volumes of this book might occupy a whole wall of a library. In 2001, however, its publisher Thieme Chemistry, part of Germany’s Thieme Publishing, began to make the entire reference work electronic.

This transformed the way that the resource could be used, according to Guido Herrmann, managing director of Thieme Chemistry. ‘There is now the full range of bells and whistles that you would expect from an electronic product,’ he explained. ‘There is full-text searching, structure searching, and a huge array of indices to structure the content. Structure searching is probably the most important feature for chemists and whatever drawing programmes they use can be incorporated. I believe that this is the only reference work which is structure searchable.’

Science of Synthesis contains the equivalent of 200,000 printed pages and the backfiles are available as PDFs going back to its launch in 1909. It holds the work of 650 leading scientists in their fields from almost every major university in the world and the editorial board features many Nobel Prize winners.

Herrmann said that this is not simply a database of everything that is published about organic chemistry. It is a reference work of evaluated information. It can take many years before something makes it from the latest scientific breakthrough notified to a learned journal to being the kind of definitive version which Science of Synthesis publishes.

So what goes into creating a reference work like this? Hermann believes that maintaining good personal relationships with authors is vital because the author and editor on a reference work are effectively working in partnership for two years before the final version is produced. ‘For each topic we will find the leading expert who will write about his or her area of expertise. Our authors choose the best of what is published and write this in a comprehensive and unified style,’ he explained. ‘We encourage authors to only pick the relevant ones and these can be clicked through on the electronic version. We also have people in the office who know the backfiles and can introduce references from as far back as 1909. In organic chemistry dated information can be very useful and can include information where the patent has expired.’


Guido Hermann: 'With the print version [of this reference series] you need an entire wall to store it and an in-depth knowledge to navigate it.'


Herrmann says that the introduction of the electronic version is opening up the resource to every major research organisation from universities to pharmaceutical companies. ‘With the print versions you need an entire wall to store them and an in-depth knowledge in order to navigate them. Chemists are already familiar with fully electronic information so they would not want to use the book form,’ he explained. However, the electronic format can be a mixed blessing. The information takes time to evaluate and so the time to create the material is unchanged. There are eight updates to the print version every year but because of the extra work needed to make the electronic version work, this is only updated twice a year.

‘There is a misconception in the market that you just get a Word document from the author and so what’s the problem. But in reality there is a lot of work to be done on adding value to that information and ensuring the quality of that information,’ pointed out Hermann.

Furthermore, all that complexity in the product has changed the relationship between the company and its library customers. Rather than working through agents, Thieme now works directly with customers. In many cases this is not only in providing sales support but also in giving quite intensive technical support and training.

The relationship with the end-users is also different now. ‘When you publish a [print] book it is published and that’s it, for at least a few months. With an electronic product the communication with customers is on a completely different level. They will immediately send us an email with suggestions for improvement or topics to be covered as well as feedback on technical issues,’ he said. ‘For example we spent two years integrating the backfiles and within a few weeks of launching them the users started asking us to make the backfiles structure searchable.’

Despite this investment and interest in new technology and features, Hermann still sees the organic chemical information itself as the most important thing. In the future, he believes, the challenge for Thieme Chemistry will be to maintain the focus on the quality of the information while at the same time pushing forward the frontiers of how this information can be used by the organic-chemistry community.