Mass Spectrometry in the Analytical Sciences Digital Library

May 2, 2005
Kenneth L. Busch
Special Issues

Volume 0, Issue 0

The author reviews the Digital Library for the Analytical Sciences (ASDLib) Web site, its philosophy, a summary of its MS resources, and how it can be useful to mass spectrometry practitioners.

Roaming the aisles at PittCon in Orlando this year, watching conferees stuff heavy catalogs into their bright yellow PittCon souvenir cases, I considered (as do many these days) the value of a printed catalog compared with an on-line catalog of products and services. Then, coming to the booth of an academic print publisher, I considered (as do many these days) the relative merits of on-line publishing compared with more traditional print publication. Finally, encountering a student I had taught in a short course the day before, I considered how the Web and other electronic tools impact traditional teaching methods, both in a short course format such as "Introduction to Mass Spectrometry" that I have taught at PittCon since 1995, as well as within more traditional education curricula, both at university and on the job. An instructor, a manager, and a salesperson each often hear the question, "Isn't this on the Web?"

Certainly, a great deal of information about mass spectrometry is available on the Web, and a previous installment of my "Mass Spectrometry Forum" column in Spectroscopy (1) provides an overview of Web resources devoted to the topic. Much has changed since that column, and it comes as no surprise that Web material relevant to mass spectrometry (MS) appears now in much greater amount, and in greater variety. But, as with anything else posted to the Web, the simple act of posting requires no filter, no review, and no evaluation. Credence might be assumed by the Web reader with regard to the nature of the site (a manufacturer's site, a society site, or the site of a research group), or through past experience. Researchers as well as students often browse the Web in search for particular information relevant to a specific, novel, and immediate problem. Past experience doesn't intersect with the need to find information right now. The "just-in-time" nature of the Web should not minimize the standards that apply to Web scientific information. Regrettably, however, Web postings often seem to minimize scholarly practices of attribution or referencing that are traditional in printed forums, undermining expectations for veracity. As those who study phishing scams know, an appearance of authenticity is no guarantee. Finally, the speed and ease of Web dissemination often makes it seem that attributable information belongs instead within some sort of creative commons. Despite these caveats, which draw admittedly from a more traditional perspective with its roots in the printed page, the electronic allure of 24/7 information and expertise available via the Web is undeniable. Student and scientist demand for more rapid access to information has developed in lockstep with the electronic ability to provide it. For use of Web resources within educational curricula, then, the task remains that of differentiation of valid information from "infoclutter," defined as an excess of readily accessible unevaluated information. Assessment always takes time, standing in contrast to aspects of Web information "real-time" gratification.

Results from an ASDL search for "mass spectrometry"

Providing a Resource

Management, organization, and assessment of digital information have attracted the attention and efforts of scientific educators. The National Science Digital Library (NSDL;

) states its mission: "NSDL provides educational resources for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. The NSDL mission is to both deepen and extend science literacy through access to materials and methods that reveal the nature of the physical universe and the intellectual means by which we discover and understand it." The NSDL is an NSF-funded endeavor (no author involvement) that catalogs and collects individually proposed and individually completed efforts. NSDL includes both projects in the digitization of scientific content itself as well as research in how such digital content is used in education.

The Analytical Sciences Digital Library (ASDL) (2) is related to the NSDL project, emphasizing content and resources of interest for the analytical science curriculum. The purpose of ASDL also is stated succinctly on the Web page: "ASDL is an electronic library that collects, catalogs, and links web-based information and discovery material pertinent to innovations in curricular developments and supporting resources about chemical measurements and instrumentation." The site invites the reader to "browse the peer-reviewed collection of Web sites and online articles dealing with the science of chemical measurement and instrumentation." Mass spectrometry clearly is within the purview of ADSL, and this column provides an overview of how ADSL works and what nature of MS information can be found there.

From the Web page, "Sites in the ASDL library are selected and reviewed by a peer panel of volunteers from all areas of analytical sciences." As of the date this article was written, there were 254 accepted sites organized within areas of pedagogy, class material, technique, analytical applications, online articles, and virtual labs. A link appears on the ASDL site to the original location of the selected resource. Selection is analogous to peer review acceptance for print publication, although the analogy does not perhaps extend to include reviewer-suggested changes to the original material. The original author of the material maintains copyright to it, and the right to change it at will. The ADSL link includes a title, a summary of content, and an indication of site origination as an academic, industrial, government, not-for-profit, or individual site. Sites included on the ASDL site so far seem to be all in English.

Mass Spectrometry

The ADSL site has a search query: enter "mass spectrometry," and the search returns 28 hits, as shown in the sidebar. Of these, 17 are identified as academic sites, four from industrial, four from non-profit, two from government, and one site attributed to an individual. Click on the "Description" radio button for each site, and the title, author, URL, annotations, search keywords, main category, level, and date of addition to the ASDL site appear. The levels are categorized into Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Graduate, and In-Service. For some sites, two and sometimes three levels are indicated.

Figure 1 is a pie chart of ASDL labels applied to the 28 sites; mixed labels count once in each category. The predominance of beginner and intermediate level material on the ASDL site is clear, as is the relative scarcity of graduate and in-service materials. Of course, these distinctions of level are somewhat arbitrary, but they also reflect the realities of development of educational materials, and management of intellectual property at these various levels. Accordingly, so will this column.

Figure 1. Distribution of ADSL sites by level.

For example, consider some beginner level sites. Most are short, very introductory, and concentrate on the basics of electron ionization MS, and perhaps gas chromatography coupled with MS. Two beginner-level sites are titled identically, "What is Mass Spectrometry?" One appears under the auspices of the British Society for Mass Spectrometry, and the second is the digital incarnation of a booklet of the same title (the author had a small part in its preparation many years ago) prepared by the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. To no surprise, the content is similar in these two sites, and similar to the material that could be found at other basic MS sites in ASDL, other such sites on the Web, and any one of dozens of print introductory texts. Without clear reasons to direct readers (browsers) to one site or the other, the student and the teacher can choose one site or many. The material has been placed on the Web often because it because it has been developed specifically in conjunction with the many introductory courses in MS within (mostly) the university curriculum. Introductory print texts that convey the same information might be unavailable in the print library, or too expensive for purchase for a limited purpose, and so providing the same information over a web that disseminates to multiple users simultaneously certainly is an advantage.

The Advantages of Online Tools

What are the special advantages to Web publication, other than its real-time and multichannel aspects, that would argue for its use in an educational setting instead of the more traditional print format? Two potential advantages come to mind. The first is the click-to-link approach that leads the interested reader to more information, parallel supporting information, and more detailed information. The ability to link seamlessly across servers generates a self-assembled concordance of information. In fact, the knowledge that each site of interest to the reader tends to link to other relevant links, increasing both the breadth and depth of information available, underlies successful Web search engine designs. However, the ASDL overview and listing of MS sites does not coordinate their underlying links. As such, it is a table of contents rather than an index. In a printed text, the index rather than the table of contents gets the most use. The educator in me looks forward to such an indexing–linking feature on ASDL.

A second potential advantage of Web presentation is the ability to use sophisticated visual graphics and animations that demonstrate and teach more accurately than a static display, print or otherwise. Yet, of the 29 sites revealed in the search of ASDL for "mass spectrometry," descriptions indicate that only five contain active elements or animations. Of major analytical methods, MS is so firmly based in movement of ions through instruments, and upon the time evolution of ion chemistry, that this dearth of animation is fundamentally disappointing. As educators, we would hope to have ready access to animations that show ions circling in an ion trap, oscillating in a quadrupole mass filter, or racing along a flight path in a time-of-flight mass spectrometer. Beyond that, the time evolution of ion chemistry explains such fundamental tenets of our science such as the Franck-Condon factor, RRKM theory, metastable ions, and kinetic aspects of desorption ionization methods. Our extraordinary analytical capabilities are undermined by our seeming reluctance to develop that same sophistication in the educational resources we use to teach MS, or indeed, any analytical science.

Why the lack of sophistication in our Web-based educational tools? As in any other endeavor, the common excuses on the part of developers are lack of time and support. But broader and more intrinsic factors are at work here, and we see their consequence also in the low number of sites classified as graduate or in-service levels of MS on the ASDL site. Much of the public research in MS is carried out in universities. There, traditional research (rather than the development of educational tools) still is often seen as the key to academic prestige (and tenure), and it is traditional print publication that still is seen to establish academic credentials. Although this is not the forum for a polemic on this topic, those interested can note the extensive discussions that culminated in the recent inclusion of a broader educational impact criterion into the NSF proposal peer review process. Those who review NSF proposals can tell their own stories about how such a merit review criterion plays out (or does not play out) in practice. Those who write NSF proposals might remember that the annual reports ask for publications as well as the URLs of any Web sites developed as a result of the project. Changes in basic educational tools and practice seem invariably slow and iterative, even while the world of MS has changed significantly in the past decades. For example, electrospray and matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization sites would be much more prevalently represented on the ASDL site if the site reflected their proportion of use in modern MS.

Other intrinsic factors that might explain the concentration of a digital resource such as ASDL on elementary materials derive from our concept of intellectual property, and our different understanding of that concept in scientific, legal, and business perspectives. Business-related factors of cost and value interplay with intellectual property and how that property is distributed to the community, because there is a cost associated with distribution and a value associated with reception. This topic underlies the intense and complex ongoing discussion in the scientific community regarding open access publishing. But that argument is rooted firmly in the publication of research papers, and ignores the costs and values of publication of educational materials, which are distinctive and no less worthy of our consideration.

Consider that an introductory textbook on MS of 350 pages costs $80–100 and might sell perhaps a few thousand copies over its useful lifetime as a commercial product. A sole author (analogous to the Web developer, but usually involved in a far more extensive and time-consuming process) receives a royalty on the order of 10% of net sales. The scale of these figures provides a fundamental dollar underpinning to the balancing issues of costs and value, even for introductory course texts. The costs increase, the number of copies decreases, and the market decreases for more specialized monographs. The author's dollar reward remains roughly the same, but the intellectual property value tends to increase as linked to contributions to scientific research. Risks also increase as the time required to produce such a product increases, as it becomes more intimately linked to one's scientific reputation, and as the chances to be marginalized or even incorrect increase.

Web publication and dissemination of a more basically oriented site offers a unique opportunity to make an educationally useful contribution, with a usually smaller investment in time and resources on the part of the developer (compared with a book, a monograph, or a larger electronic project such as an animation). Further, to be blunt, it provides every Web author the chance to post two-cents worth of content. Scientists are not immune to the lure of the blogger's siren song. The community still tends to differentiate such postings from a "research" contribution, even as such posted resources grow in sophistication. This is due in part to the disappearance of sites into the infoclutter, and the ability of ASDL and similar initiatives to pull them out is valuable.

Room for Improvement

What, then, explains the absence of more sophisticated materials, collected in a Web site such as ASDL? I adopt a simplistic approach starting with the traditional print publication of original research, review articles, and chapters in scientific monographs. The cost of print production is high, matched by a high value measured both in terms of documentation of research progress and an increase in scientific understanding. The intellectual property worth also is high, as the progress and understanding are associated with specific individuals or research groups who receive some share of scientific credit from the community for their efforts. Because of the cost, the value, and the intellectual property worth, classic print publication is a tightly controlled medium, in MS as in any other scientific field.

Web sites that directly mirror print publication also are controlled similarly, usually by paid subscription, and for exactly the same reasons. Individual scientists balance copyright and prepublication restrictions when they choose to post their substantive works to the Web, knowing that the same electronic tools that make their ideas and compositions (idealistically) available to many potentially can limit other avenues for publication and for dissemination, and similarly can limit the value of those intellectual properties for issues such as tenure, promotion, or career advancement. Unfortunately, the ideal uses of the Web also make resources posted there a target for misappropriation by a few. We are confronted then with our own digital divide — the promise of Web resources for enhanced education, and the reality that various controlling factors conspire to limit use for such purposes.

ASDL selects from the MS resources that are available. As described, some of these sites result from specific, supported efforts (the Virtual Mass Spectrometry Laboratory is a fine example). The linkage to a particular university group for that site is strong and can withstand challenge and dilution. Some of the ASDL sites dealing with MS are allied with the purposes of professional societies, and some with the educational objectives of specific classes that teach MS at various levels. ASDL stands in contrast to commercial sites that also provide Web-based resources in MS. Commercial sponsors can provide time and support for more integrated and cross-linked sites — but at a cost that is apparent as soon as competitive commercial factors enter into the decision making process. I would suggest that the professional national and international societies in MS are the means to provide the support, and more importantly, the recognition that investment in coordinated educational resources via the web is both needed and worthwhile. I am personally pleased to see a link on the ASDL site to a past column that has appeared in "Mass Spectrometry Forum." Such a link is tenable because the publisher of these columns laudably posts some of them in PDF format on the publisher's Web site, and because these columns are the result of my personal efforts, and unrelated to my employment or professional advancement.

Having written earlier that web publication seems to mute standards of scholarship that include attribution and referencing, I must close this article with the observation that identical figures explaining introductory concepts in MS appear on different sites included in the ASDL library. Educators must consider how students can be effectively taught standards of scholarship when the products we might use specifically in teaching seem not to demonstrate those same standards. This story, once played out in the educational and ultimately legal debate about photocopying and fair use, seems destined to be replayed to a new audience within the electronic forum of the Web unless we provide proper attention to the issue.


1. "Electronic Resources for Mass Spectrometry,"


, July-August 1996.

2. C. K. Larive, T. Kuwana, and S. Chalk, Anal. Chem. 76, 399A–402A (2004).

Kenneth L. Busch is Spectroscopy's "Mass Spectrometry Forum" columnist. Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of the National Science Foundation. E-mail: