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Genesis of the Specialist Reports


How do chemists keep up with the scientific literature?
Norman Greenwood Scientist
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One other aspect I’ll talk about of the chemical societies and this concerns the problem of keeping up with the literature as it is appearing. It’s of enormous extent – I’ve already alluded to that in my inaugural lecture that I talked about earlier – but for working chemists how do you keep up? There are things like inorganic... things like Chemical Abstracts, for example, but even they were getting unwieldy. Nowadays, of course, computer access of journals makes things a bit easier. But in the ‘70s the problem was that working chemists found it increasingly difficult to keep up with work in other areas of their subject. So if they were a lecturer in a university, for example, they clearly knew what was going on in their own little corner of the subject, but how to keep a balanced assessment of what is going on?  And, indeed, by reading the literature it also sparks ideas and cross fertilisation for your own research.

Well that had been dealt with from the early 20th century in the UK by the Chemical Society’s Annual Reports which were highly valued throughout the world. They were a single volume to start with which treated the important steps in advance in each branch of chemistry that had occurred in the preceding year. So it was an annual report and these are the important things in inorganic chemistry. And actually whilst I was at Nottingham, I was an annual reporter with Cliff Addison for inorganic chemistry. We had to survey the whole of the literature, as other reporters did, and then write a report of a few hundred pages, a couple of hundred pages, incorporating those important steps of advance. So there was assessment and valued judgement, but importantly rapidity, because it had to be published the following year otherwise it was really losing its purpose.

So that was the basis of the mechanism for keeping up but as things got more and more numerous – the papers – it became increasingly difficult until if one had just listed the references to important papers it would fill all the space that was available.

Norman Greenwood (1925-2012) was born in Australia and graduated from Melbourne University before going to Cambridge. His wide-ranging research in inorganic and structural chemistry made major advances in the chemistry of boron hydrides and other main-group element compounds. He also pioneered the application of Mössbauer spectroscopy to problems in chemistry. He was a prolific writer and inspirational lecturer on chemical and educational themes, and held numerous visiting professorships throughout the world.

Listeners: Brian Johnson

Professor Brian FG Johnson FRS, FRSE, FRS Chem, FAcad Eu, FAS. Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Edinburgh 1991-1995, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Cambridge 1995-2005, Master Fitzwilliam College Cambridge 1999-2005. Research interests include studies of transition metal carbonyls, organometallic chemistry, nano- particles and homogeneous catalysis. Professor Johnson is the author of over 1000 research articles and papers.

Tags: Chemical Abstracts, 1970s, Chemical Society, UK, Annual Reports, Nottingham University, Cliff Addison

Duration: 2 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2011

Date story went live: 25 November 2011