Useful Chemistry: Publish and be…?

It was great to meet Jean-Claude Bradley, the guru of the Useful Chemistry blog at the Am. Chem. Soc meeting. The Useful chemistry blog has a remarkable and valuale feature – J-C publishes chemistry as it is being done. To get an example see:
[the Ugi reaction in water]
You don’t have to know any chemistry to see the freshness of style and the excitement of research. For details there are links to his Wiki giving details of the experiments, spectra, etc.
This raises a fundamental problem in publishing – is it “science”?. To me it is obviously science – a formal description of the hypothesis and its testing by doing an experiment. The careful measurement of the results and the critical analysis. Did it work? – J-C and collaborators are prepared to admit “failure” – although failure should be a positive idea in science. By publishing he establishes the date of the experiment (and therefore priority) and invites critiques from the rest of the community. Since he is working in antimalarials he also gives the world community a chance to pick up potentially exciting compounds.
But it isn’t part of the mainstream of scientific publishing. By putting his work on the web he has automatically forfeited the opportunity to submit the work to a mainstream journal in chemistry. Many mainstream chemistry journals require that the work has not been previously published and that includes putting it on the Web. Henry an I have had this experience – we mounted one of our CML schemas on a web page for people to comment on and were told that unless we took it down immediately we wouldn’t be allowed to publish. We could send paper (sic) copies to a small number of close collaborators as preprints. So, in this way, the scientific publishing process can actually inhibit useful critiquing before publication. (Many other disciplines – such as physics and computer science – encourage the posting of preprints for community critique – and it’s sad we can’t do this for mainstream chemistry).
Why do we publish? Unfortunately the single most important reason for many authors is “to be cited” in a high-impact journal. (Hilaire Belloc opined ‘When I am dead, I hope it may be said: “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”‘. Scientists may change that to “his papers were cited”). I’ll post more later on the citation economy… Jean-Claude is (possibly) forfeiting the opportunity to be cited in a high-impact journal
But most other reasons for publishing are fulfilled by the blog:

  • priority
  • communication of the work
  • ability to be critiqued and to gain feedback.
  • record of the work, re-usable by others

We can usefully argue whether these are done better or worse by blog than traditional methods. IMO the blog has many advantages and I’ll be developing the following themes in later posts:

  • the blog can experiment with semantic publishing. (So can publishers, but the investment is larger). J-C and I can start adding active CML to his blogs almost immediately. This means the blogs and wikis can act as active semantic documents (cows) not dead paper (hamburgers)
  • the community can review the blog. This is anathema to traditionalists – unless a paper has been formally peer-reviewed it’s worthless. In some disciplines (e.g. clinical trials) I would agree. But in chemistry is the formal peer-reviewing process so wonderful? I and OSCAR (the robot) have found technical errors in almost every paper on synthesis I have looked at. Reactions that don’t “balance”, formulae that don’t square with the compound being discussed, mistyped chemical names and compound references, etc. I am sympathetic to the reviewers – an in-depth peer-review of a chemical synthesis can easily take a day. I found one where the supporting information (more later) ran to 200 pages – most of it PDF hamburger. I am not advocating the abandonment of peer-review but in some cases there are complementary approaches
  • the blog is immediate, formal publication can take months
  • The blog can link to other resources and unlike formal publications can be updated, preserving its revison history (in a Wikipedia-like manner)
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