Issue Date: February 9, 2009
THE FIRST THING Jean-Claude Bradley does after teaching his 9 AM organic chemistry study session is walk to his office, where he gets the latest updates on his team's research projects. That sounds routine for most chemistry professors, except that those new research results are on a publicly visible website, where they are posted by collaborators thousands of miles away.
To most chemists, discussing original research ideas and raw scientific data online can seem pretty brazen, but Bradley, an associate professor at Drexel University, isn't worried. He is a prominent advocate of Open Notebook Science, a movement in which researchers share the nuts and bolts of their ongoing projects in a publicly visible forum and encourage others to comment on, and even contribute to, the work. The Web is making that kind of transparency easier than ever before. Bradley contends that there are several advantages to an open approach. "Transparency facilitates rapid access to existing and new collaborators, as well as exposing our work to the scrutiny of many, which can only make it better," he says.
Bradley is collaborating with roughly a dozen other researchers to build a database of solubility information on small molecules in nonaqueous solvents. Solubility information, which synthetic chemists could use to optimize reactions, is sparse, despite the existence of a few free databases, Bradley says. "Our goal is to make it as easy to search for a compound's solubility in different organic solvents as it is to look up its boiling point," he says.
Bradley didn't start out reporting raw data so openly. "In fact, I used to do quite the opposite," Bradley says. During his postdoctoral work and first decade as an assistant and associate professor at Drexel, he regularly obtained patents on his work and never published raw data. But during the summer of 2005, Bradley started to seek new research areas and new collaborators. That led him to his current research quest, the discovery of novel antimalaria compounds. The main project has since branched off in a few directions, including the solubility work. Along the way, Bradley increasingly adopted an open-science point of view and has been using the Web to put it into practice.
Despite his enthusiasm for complete transparency, Bradley emphasizes that not every project is suited to an entirely open approach. Most researchers who express reservations about open science are worried about protecting intellectual property and avoiding being "scooped" on a project, he says. Because of these complications, Bradley expressly chose an area where he thought he could make a contribution while still making his data publicly available at every step. "If someone uses my solubility data, that's something I can get recognition for without competing in the same way that many other projects would require me to," he says.
"The open-science movement isn't trying to convert everyone. It's another way of approaching science that complements intellectual property," Bradley says. "It's about adding options, not removing ones that already exist."
That said, individual labs and researchers might benefit from using the Web to communicate more openly about some aspects of their work, Bradley says.
For instance, he frequents a website called FriendFeed.com, a more powerful incarnation of a chat room that helps users discover and discuss interesting content from across the Web. The site "has changed the way that I work," Bradley says. It lets him collaborate in real time, by sharing links to relevant journal articles, blog entries, PowerPoint files, and spreadsheets with his research contacts. He's also used the site to make new connections.
For instance, one FriendFeed conversation introduced Bradley to a potential new source of funding and led to his filing a successful grant application there. "There's no better example of usefulness for anything than the ability to get funding out of it," he quips.
THE GRANT was from Submeta, a nonprofit group that funds early-stage or nontraditional research efforts. It helps bankroll a monthly prize, the Submeta Open Notebook Science Awards, which is meant to encourage more students to contribute solubility entries to the online notebook. Students are evaluated on their ability to appropriately report and support their scientific work and to respond to feedback by a group of five judges. So far, five students from three labs in the U.S. and the U.K. are contributing.
The solubility project originated from Bradley's desire to better control the Ugi reaction, a multicomponent coupling reaction that his team uses to synthesize potential antimalarials. Some of that work was recently published in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (DOI: 10.3791/942), a peer-reviewed, open-access journal. It was the first organic chemistry paper published in the journal, which has been in business since 2006.
Ultimately, Bradley thinks the Web is the fastest medium for communicating technical, procedural, and other kinds of information, as well as for making connections, all of which are crucial for advancing any research program. Using Web-based social tools like blogs and FriendFeed should become as routine as making phone calls to colleagues, Bradley says. "When you write a grant application, you don't take note of how many phone calls you made," he says. You just make the connections you need to get the job done, any way you can.
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
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