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Beilstein: Who Owns It and What’s Next?
Posted On March 12, 2007
For more than a century, chemists have depended on some form of the Beilstein Handbook of Organic Chemistry for data on organic chemical compounds—and it's very good data at that. Preparations, reactions, properties, etc., were all evaluated and checked by a crew of experts before publication in a database. Of course, this database was a series of volumes printed in German (which was one reason many of us old-timers learned German!). This massive reference work, which includes the basic series and five updates, evolved into a family of online databases created in English in various media. A recent acquisition announcement concerning the Beilstein database prompted this investigation.

First, here's a brief corporate history: In 1997, Elsevier ( acquired MDL, and in 1998, Elsevier/MDL (henceforth E/MDL; acquired sales and marketing rights to the Beilstein database from the Beilstein Institute ( E/MDL also assumed responsibility for production of the database while the Beilstein Institute retained ownership.

On March 6, a number of sources reported on a news release titled "Elsevier Acquires the Beilstein Database, World's Leading Archive of Chemical Data." After describing brief histories and involvement of E/MDL and Beilstein, the release stated: "Elsevier will assume ownership and acquire the rights to the Beilstein database." Statements from spokespersons for Beilstein, Elsevier, and E/MDL followed with terse mention of plans for future operations.

NewsBreaks editor Paula Hane and I, a "lapsed" user of the Beilstein database, decided that a NewsBreak on the overall topic was warranted since there were many questions to be answered from the users' viewpoint. A number of users responded to my request for information on the Chemical Information list (CHMINF-L). Michiel Kolman (, managing director of E/MDL in Frankfurt, graciously called me with answers to my questions. A summary of these discussions follows.

As stated in the announcement, E/MDL now has entire ownership of the Beilstein database: name, production, marketing, and sales. Beilstein continues to work with its other products including the "Beilstein Journal of Organic Chemistry."

Total ownership means that E/MDL can more easily integrate the Beilstein database into its other products and services. E/MDL vends DiscoveryGate ( with about 20 databases, searchable by use of DatabaseBrowser. The Beilstein database is in DiscoveryGate but is not in the CompoundIndex, an index of all other substances in the cluster. However, by early summer, the almost 9 million compounds in Beilstein will be searchable by structure and substructure along with all of the others.

The software used for structure searching, ISENTRIS, is a descendant of ISIS from MDL (in turn, a descendant of MACCS and REACCS). With Isentris, a user can integrate data generated both internally and externally. When the Beilstein database is added to ISENTRIS 3.0, planned for this summer, the reaction planner will be able to draw on the 10 million reactions in Beilstein as well as additional reactions with the other databases already in the file. Later in the year, other data elements of the Beilstein database will be added to ISENTRIS 3.1.

(As a point of information, the press release describes Beilstein as the world's largest chemical reaction database. Speaking for CAS, aka Chemical Abstracts Service, Eric Shively observed that the CASREACT File from CAS is the largest reaction database with more than 12 million reactions.)

Elsevier also vends Scopus, an abstracting and indexing service covering publications in all disciplines (no full text; for more information see, which is similar to the Web of Science (from Thomson Scientific; for more information see Elsevier will be working on a direct link from Scopus to Beilstein with a link back from Beilstein to Scopus coming after that.

As for improvements in the Beilstein database itself, E/MDL plans to improve the timeliness. Currently updated quarterly, E/MDL is aiming at more frequent updates—monthly, weekly, and possibly more often. Although primary information is edited and checked extensively before it is introduced into the database, mistakes do occur. Currently, it is difficult or nearly impossible to make corrections to the file, but that will change. The look and feel of the database will be improved, and the data extraction and other production processes will be streamlined.

The Beilstein Institute, which is now totally divorced from its namesake database, will hopefully issue its own press release. Until that happens, I did receive some input from Martin Hicks at the Institute. Among other services, the Beilstein Institute publishes the "Beilstein Journal of Organic Chemistry." It is an open access refereed journal appearing online at There are no charges to either authors or users, and what's even more significant is that authors retain copyright. The journal is abstracted by both CAS and Thomson/ISI for their databases, and it is archived in PubMedCentral.

To summarize the responses I received from users, most had the same questions I did. I think they'll be happy with the answers. However, according to the old saying, the proof is in the pudding (and the pudding isn't completely finished yet).

I plan to attend the American Chemical Society Meeting in Chicago at the end of March. In addition to some great technical sessions, I plan on "haunting" the exhibition, especially the booths of CAS and MDL. As I get additional information, I'll pass it along.

Bob Buntrock is a (semi)retired chemist and informationspecialist living in glorious Maine. A veteran of the online revolution and wars, he reviews books and writes on a number of topics.

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