CHMINF-L, the Chemical Information Sources Discussion List.
Gary Wiggins, Chemistry Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405. Phone: 812-855-9452; FAX: 812-855-6611. Internet: firstname.lastname@example.org; BITNET: wiggins@indiana
Discussion lists in many disciplines have served as effective means of information dissemination over the Internet. CHMINF-L is a LISTSERV discussion list that has been in existence since May 1991. The history of its development and its place in today's chemical information environment are presented, along with some predictions for the future role of CHMINF-L and other lists.
The Chemical Information Sources Discussion List (CHMINF-L) was established at Indiana University in April 1991 and became fully operational on May 1, 1991. In less than 3 1/2 years, it has established a reputation as a high-quality Internet resource for keeping up with new information products of interest to chemists and for getting answers to chemical information questions in general. CHMINF-L serves as a forum for discussion of as well as an information source for chemistry reference questions and the sources used to find information needed by chemists. News about existing reference sources, the appearance of new primary, secondary, or tertiary printed or computer-readable sources, prices and availability, search hints, bibliographic instruction--all are found as topics distributed on CHMINF-L.
People have also used CHMINF-L as a "reference library" to supplement the resources of their local libraries. That is appropriate as long as users are willing to supply answers. Fortunately, the subscriber list to CHMINF-L includes some of the best chemistry librarians and chemical information specialists in the world, and they have unselfishly given of their time and energy to answer many questions. Jane Smith, in a provocative article entitled "Hypatia Screamed," concludes that "...the skills of librarians and the tenets of librarianship will be increasingly critical if we are to deliver on the promises of the 'Information Age.'"1 It is my belief that the success of CHMINF-L is directly attributable to the librarians in its midst.
There were 4,865 messages sent by CHMINF-L in the first 41 months of its existence. Dana Roth, chemistry librarian at Caltech, had submitted over 175 items to CHMINF-L by October 1, 1994. On that date, there were 1,042 subscriptions to CHMINF-L, at least 160 of which were to commercial institutions. On a typical day, four messages are sent to the subscriber list through CHMINF-L.
In its brief history, CHMINF-L has come to be considered "a primary source of information."2 One effusive subscriber at a major chemical information company has even called it "the most valuable thing on the Internet." While that may be stretching the truth, it does point out the enthusiasm with which this resource has been embraced by the subscribers. Therefore, an examination of the development of CHMINF-L is valuable as a model for other Internet products and services.
II. THE NATURE Of CHMINF-L POSTINGS
Typical postings to the Chemical Information Sources Discussion List have ranged from queries seeking elusive name reactions to comprehensive guides such as "Some Chemistry Resources on the Internet."3 Eight revisions of the latter source were distributed through CHMINF-L in the twelve months since it was originally produced in October 1993. Major chemical information companies have also chosen CHMINF-L as a place to distribute news about their products. Subscribers to CHMINF-L probably first learned the following through reading CHMINF-L:
"The American Chemical Society and DIALOG Information Services Settle Litigation." (11/1/93)
ORBIT and BRS Sold to Questel." (2/5/94)
"CAS and DIALOG Agree to Publish New Standard." (9/30/94)
The last item refers to an effort by the two industry giants to co-sponsor publication of the Scientific and Technical Attribute Set to improve interoperability among consumers and providers of scientific and technical information using the Z39.50 protocol.
Of course, since CHMINF-L is an unmoderated list, not every submission is of such weighty significance. For example, there was a brief flurry of activity in March 1994 over the desirability of washing bananas before peeling them. This was authoritatively answered by a librarian from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, who opined that "Obviously, if the peel has absorbed enough pesticide to get through the meat of the banana, merely washing the surface is NOT going to remove any pesticide that has been absorbed."
Most reference questions directed to CHMINF-L are in a far more serious vein and usually find a prompt answer. It is remarkable that the list has retained such a high level of quality without the intervention of a moderator or editor. Every message sent to CHMINF-L is automatically distributed to all subscribers, so the potential for dilution of focus is very real, as evidenced by the diminution of quality of some other Internet resources of this type.
Although CHMINF-L is unmoderated, that is not to say that there are no rules or policies covering the submissions. It has been against Internet policy in general to advertise over the network. Discussion of a product's relative advantages and disadvantages by users of the product is encouraged under the NSFnet Acceptable Use Policy, but vendors are advised only to respond to questions about their products, and then only so long as the responses are not in the nature of advertising. It was necessary to develop a statement to inform information providers what would be considered acceptable content for submission to CHMINF-L. The following guidelines were posted by the List Owner in September 1992:
1. Blatant marketing statements should be avoided, but information on new products is welcome.
2. Rather than listing prices, it would be better to include a name, phone or FAX number or e-mail address for people who want to follow up on the prices of products.
3. A product description submitted not by a company representative, but by an individual who is on the list of subscribers may include the price.
4. Avoid repetitious statements about the company.
5. Press releases are not monitored, but only those press releases which are clearly related to chemistry and its information sources should be placed on CHMINF-L.
A recent survey of the readership found some sentiment for loosening the restriction against the inclusion of price information by the product's producer. As Internet policies become less restrictive, it seems reasonable to allow a company to include price information in a posting.
Publishing companies have begun to make available on the Internet such things as book catalogs, abstracts, and journal tables of contents. The List Owner has had to respond to requests from publishers to send items of this type to the readership. For journal tables of contents, it was decided that CHMINF-L was not an appropriate distribution mechanism, since it would be difficult to define the basis on which to exclude a given title. Another category that has been forbidden is full lists of duplicate journal issues that a library or individual wishes to dispose of. It is acceptable to post a notice of the availability and the terms of receiving free issues of duplicated journals, but the entire list should not be sent to CHMINF-L.
There have been a number of significant surveys conducted over CHMINF-L. The person conducting the survey usually asks that responses be sent to the researcher's address, not to CHMINF-L, and a summary is later posted to CHMINF-L. Topics have included the use of CD-ROMs, journal cancellations, whether to retain older editions of encyclopedias, etc.
III. SUBSCRIBING TO CHMINF-L AND CHMINF-L ARCHIVES
CHMINF-L is distributed via Eric Thomas' LISTSERV program. To subscribe, send the one-line message:
SUB CHMINF-L yourfirstname yourlastname
to: LISTSERV@IUBVM or LISTSERV@IUBVM.INDIANA.EDU. Options that can be selected by the subscriber are discussed later in this paper.
An archive of the more recent postings to CHMINF-L is maintained at the University of California, Davis:
URL: gopher://gopher-chem.ucdavis.edu:70/1/1/Email_Archive/ChmInf- L The archives are arranged with directories for month and date, with each monthly directory also having indexes alphabetically by subject line and by date. Approximately 240 messages are thus indexed for September 1994. It is possible to search the archive by keywords.
Another archive of CHMINF-L is, of course, the database of all postings maintained at Indiana University. One of the special features of the LISTSERV program is its ability to search the full text of all submissions to a LISTSERV database. The search syntax for LISTSERV is illustrated in section VI of this paper.
IV. FUTURE OF CHMINF-L
There is no direct monetary charge imposed by Indiana University for use of the LISTSERV program or the IBM 4381 mainframe on which it currently resides. The university is committed to maintaining the service for the foreseeable future. There are real costs associated with running a LISTSERV program, of course. Not the least of these is the personnel costs of both the computing service staff and the list owners. It usually takes about 1/2 hour each day to resolve the various electronic mail problems that are encountered when distributing postings to over 1,000 subscribers throughout the world. Some of the benefits to a university from running a program of this sort are intangible, bringing prestige, if not dollars to the university.
Having available resources such as CHMINF-L on the Internet has forced decision-makers in the corporate world to take a more serious view of the Internet. In many cases, they have encountered demands from the rank-and-file employees to gain access to those resources. CHMINF-L already has a wide range of Internet subscribers from the corporate sector, counting companies such as Amoco, Monsanto, Burroughs-Wellcome, Rohm and Haas, Abbott Laboratories, DOWELANCO, Exxon, DuPont, American Cyanamid, Kodak, Eli Lilly, and others among its subscribers. Furthermore, there is scarcely a chemical information company or major chemistry publisher that does not have at least one subscriber on the list.
Occasionally a subscriber has asked that a gateway be provided between CHMINF-L and the Usenet newsgroups that are read by many. To date these requests have been resisted, partly out of concern that opening the list to a more general audience might so dilute the quality of CHMINF-L as to destroy its utility.
V. FUTURE OF LISTSERV AND SIMILAR SOFTWARE
There are many discussion lists in existence today, and there is not likely to be a decline in their popularity in the near future. Indeed, tools are being developed that make it easier both to discover relevant news groups and to access the material that passes through them. One such commercial tool is InfoMagnet. See at:
A Windows version of InfoMagnet is available now, and Macintosh, OS/2, and X/Motif versions are to be released soon. The program lets you pull up categories of discussion groups, manage membership options in LISTSERV lists, and automatically search the archives of multiple groups at once.
Another tool for Macintosh searching of VM- and CMS-based LISTSERV lists is ListManager, a freeware product available by ftp at:
For a description of ListManager, see:
ListWebber II organizes VM-, CMS-, and Unix-based lists into subject areas. It allows the user to search the archives via a WWW forms-based browser. A detailed description of ListWebber is available at:
The LISTSERV freeware program developed by Eric Thomas for IBM VM- and CMS-operating systems is by far the most popular program for distributing information to large numbers of people over the Internet. It was recently estimated by the developer that LISTSERV has the largest number of lists, the largest number of subscribers, and the largest traffic. On May 28, 1994, LISTSERV delivered 3.7 million messages.4 Nevertheless, there continue to be developed and used a variety of such programs, among them:
DEC's OpenVMS utility MX
TULP (The UNIX Listserver Program).
Naturally, all of these programs use different commands. For five of these programs, Jim Milles of the Saint Louis University Law Library has issued a document entitled: "Discussion Lists: Mail Server Commands." Copies of the document are available by e-mail and anonymous FTP.
E-MAIL: Send a message containing only the line:
GET MAILSER CMD NETTRAIN F=MAIL
FTP: FTP UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU
Login as: anonymous
Use your e-mail address as the password
These programs and the USENET or NetNews newsgroups constitute the range of options available to users today. Lists may be provided as unmoderated (discussion) lists, moderated (distribution) lists, or as true edited digests.
Eric Thomas's freeware efforts are a thing of the past. LISTSERV since version 1.8 is available only as a commercial product from L-Soft International, Inc., 11501 Georgia Avenue, Suite 405, Wheaton MD 20902 USA. In addition to the IBM VM version of LISTSERV, Thomas is developing a UNIX version, plus VMS and Windows NT versions. L-Soft has jointly developed with Logika, Inc. a Windows interface that features easy subscription, guided construction of LISTSERV database searches, and online documentation of LISTSERV commands. Given the widespread popularity of the LISTSERV program, Eric Thomas's venture into the commercial world is likely to succeed.
VI. LISTSERV FEATURES
As with all such programs, LISTSERV's main function is to re-distribute e-mail. It is compatible with BITNET, Internet, and other mail protocols, and features sophisticated error detection to prevent mail loops. The program maintains the subscriber list and processes requests. These requests may be to subscribe or signoff, to temporarily hold the mail delivery, or to search the database of postings. One thing LISTSERV cannot do is prevent the user from REPLYing to an e-mail message, thus sending it to the entire list when the reply was actually meant only for the original sender. That has resulted in such embarrassing observations being sent to CHMINF-L as the following:
"I've been looking over the departmental plan for improving teaching, and suddenly the computer proposals you busted your butt on are 'joint chemistry and Univ Library'...Watch out--if it's not nailed down it'll be stolen."
"I'm glad I don't have children. I would have made a lousy parent."
A wise former chairman of the Indiana University Department of Chemistry once said that he wrote lots of memos, but sent very few. That was in the pre-electronic mail days, however. Perhaps we need a built-in five-minute pause/cancel feature in LISTSERV.
It is possible in later versions of LISTSERV to establish up to ten topics into which all postings must be classified. A user may select any or all topics. Thus, a method of cutting down on irrelevant postings is provided. Also, if the list owner sets it up, the list can be provided as a digest instead of an immediate mailing. Daily, weekly, or monthly digest mailings are possible.
Another very handy feature of LISTSERV is its database searching capabilities. It is possible to limit the search to certain parts of a posting. For example, the following search finds everything submitted by the author since the founding of CHMINF-L.
//ListSrch JOB Echo=no
Database Search DD=Rules
//Rules DD *
S * in CHMINF-L where sender contains wiggins
index date.8 sender.30 subject.40
This would be a rather voluminous print job since over 550 postings had been submitted by Wiggins as of October 1, 1994. It would be safer to get the index list first, then submit the exact same job with the addition of a print statement for just the desired records, e.g., print all of 267.
An example of a subject search for the acronym PIAC (Polymer Industrial Advisory Council), where we are sure we want everything from CHMINF-L is the following:
//ListSrch JOB Echo=no
Database Search DD=Rules
//Rules DD *
S PIAC in chminf-l
In both cases, the e-mail message containing the search would be sent to LISTSERV@IUBVM or LISTSERV@IUBVM.INDIANA.EDU.
LISTSERV commands are not case sensitive. They can be transmitted be e-mail, one per line, or interactively if working on the same platform the software is mounted on. Sending the command GET LISTSERV REFCARD to any LISTSERV site will retrieve the most common commands used in the program.
A command that may be useful is: SET CHMINF-L DUAL. This insures that the e-mail address of the sender will always be visible when the message is received.
The command QUERY CHMINF-L will return a list of the optional settings in effect for your subscription. Some of those are rather cryptic. To learn their meanings, send the command,
GET LISTKEYW MEMO to any LISTSERV site.
Membership in automated mailing lists can be a source of great reward or great frustration. Andrew Kantor has said of mailing lists, "It's a crude but effective cross between a chain letter and a shouting match."5 Shouting rarely occurs on CHMINF-L, even when the occasional mail loop develops, as it uncannily seems to do each time the list owner takes a vacation! Fortunately, the infamous "flame wars" that periodically invade other lists have been virtually absent from CHMINF-L. Even the notorious mass mailings sent to most lists by lawyers seeking emigre business have managed to avoid CHMINF-L. Aside from the occasional banana question, it must be said that CHMINF-L is a very calm place, but, after all, one would expect a virtual library to preserve some of the aspects of its traditional counterpart. With continued enthusiasm and participation by the subscribers, CHMINF-L can continue to be a useful resource well into the 21st century.
1. Smith, Jane. (1994). Report from the kudzu patch: Hypatia screamed. Internet World 5(1), 86-89. (p. 89)
2. Shackle, Linda. (1994). Chemistry Division. Special Libraries 85(3), 218.
3. Wiggins, Gary. Some chemistry resources on the Internet. Version 8 (August 20, 1994). Available on the American Chemical Society Gopher (acsinfo.acs.org or 126.96.36.199).
4. Thomas, Eric. "Re: Adding value to mailing lists." LSTOWN-L, LISTSERV list owners' forum, May 29, 1994.
5. Kantor, Andrew. (1994). Internet: the undiscovered country. PC Magazine 13(5), 116-118. (p.118)