The New Water Cooler
Where do chemists network? The Web, of course! Find out more.
Internet-savvy chemists have found ways to stay informed and communicate with each other by embracing the latest generation of social Web sites. These tools allow them to work more efficiently and maintain closer ties to their colleagues.
“Most chemists use the Web primarily as a source of information, usually with Google as the interface,” says Andrew Lang, a professor at Oral Roberts University who built a video game that helps organic chemistry students understand NMR spectra. “With very little effort, they could join growing scientific and education communities that are using the Web to both create and pass on knowledge.”
Until recently, skimming the table of contents in several dozen journals was the most efficient way to keep current in the world of chemical research. Now keen readers can take advantage of RSS (really simple syndication) services to monitor their favorite publications. The moment a new paper appears on a journal Web site— sometimes months before it is printed— the title and abstract will appear in an online announcement system called an RSS feed. These services are free and deliver all of your news to the same place. Most of them keep track of what has already been looked at, allowing the reader to revisit articles of interest. If an article is particularly interesting, RSS readers make it easy to share that information with colleagues.
“A diversity of electronic sources means that chemists can choose the admixture that suits them, and it is important to make information available and accessible across a variety of such platforms," says Paul S. Weiss, Kavli Chair in NanoSystems Sciences at UCLA and editorin- chief of the journal ACS Nano.
Another Web application, Twitter, is a social networking site that gives users 140 characters to share their thoughts. On the surface this application may seem to have little connection to chemistry, but a number of influential chemists are using it to broadcast concise messages to anyone who will listen. It acts as a sort of public address system for the chemical community. The editors of Nature Chemistry use their Twitter account to call attention to things that chemists may find amusing—from lighthearted gossip items to announcements about their next issue. At the time of this writing roughly 1,200 chemists subscribe to those broadcasts. Meanwhile, the American Chemical Society press room uses it to share articles about chemistry as they appear in top newspapers and magazines. Unlike an RSS feed, Twitter is a two-way form of communication. Direct messages can be sent to anyone who has a Twitter account, and that person can then respond.
Although several thousand chemists have adopted Twitter and RSS feeds, many are simply too swamped with e-mail to try these new tools, and for many, old habits are hard to change. “I bet if you called a top chemistry department and asked to speak to all of the faculty one by one, less than 10% would use RSS, and much fewer than that would use Twitter,” says Stuart Cantrill, the chief editor of Nature Chemistry. “Perhaps I'm a dinosaur, but I think change will be slow.”
As the budgets of newspapers and science magazines have plummeted, online news sites and blogs have stepped in to fill the content void. A good one can function as a newspaper, an online journal club, or a never-ending review article. Some are run by professional editors, and others are written by graduate students. Chemical & Engineering News staff write a blog that covers topics ranging from tchotchkes for chemists to profiles of exceptionally frugal conference attendees. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Paul Doherty’s blog, Totally Synthetic, contains highly technical analysis of recent publications from organic chemistry journals.
In addition to offering hard news, many of these technologies—particularly social networking sites—are gradually becoming an important hub for chemists. LinkedIn and the American Chemical Society Network both allow anyone to post their résumé and gather endorsements from colleagues and former employers. They are serious Web sites meant for job seekers, employers, and professionals who are interested in making business connections. By comparison, Facebook is a wild playground. Like Twitter, Facebook encourages its users to broadcast concise status updates to all their “friends.” Chemists are more likely to use this service for less official business—such as announcing that they are headed to a conference or trying to find someone to share the cost of a hotel room.
In the coming years we may witness the emergence of many more Web sites that are meant to assist and inform chemists, but only time will tell how quickly these technologies are adopted by the community at large. “Nothing will change overnight. Perhaps as the younger generation of scientists progress through the ranks and become established academics, their Web 2.0 habits will survive the transition,” Cantrill says.