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Biological Chemistry

Communication Dot Com

The internet is an important hub for discussing chemistry—don’t dismiss it

by Carmen Drahl
August 17, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 33

Credit: Paul Docherty
This photo and others, all taken with an iPhone, chronicle Docherty’s “live blogged” experiment.
Credit: Paul Docherty
This photo and others, all taken with an iPhone, chronicle Docherty’s “live blogged” experiment.

On July 21, the Journal of the American Chemical Society published new papers online. That was nothing out of the ordinary. But within 24 hours, something extraordinary happened. Chemists from around the world converged online, at an organic chemistry blog, to discuss one of those manuscripts, repeat its experiments, and examine its conclusions. The story is a particularly vivid example of how the Web is changing communication in science and should encourage more chemists to tune in to online discussions.

That day, Paul Docherty, who runs the blog “Totally Synthetic,” posted a routine blog entry. But visitors to his blog kept commenting about something else—a new study by David Z. Wang and coworkers at Peking University entitled “Reductive and Transition-Metal-Free: Oxidation of Secondary Alcohols by Sodium Hydride” (J. Am. Chem. Soc., DOI: 10.1021/ja904224y). The paper’s title was attention-getting, and its results more so: The work described a method by which sodium hydride (NaH), a strong reducing agent, could be used to promote oxidation reactions, a result that seemed to run counter to chemical convention.

Docherty, a medicinal chemist at Arrow Therapeutics, in London, was sufficiently intrigued to repeat one of the reactions in the paper. He broadcast his observations and posted raw data on his blog for all to read, snapping photos of the reaction with his iPhone as it progressed. Meanwhile, roughly a half-dozen of the blog’s readers did likewise, each with slightly different reaction conditions, each reporting results in the blog’s comment section.

Taken together, the results suggest that the NaH-mediated reactions work but that the proposed mechanism might need reevaluation. An oxidizing contaminant is likely playing a role in the chemistry—when air is rigorously excluded from the reaction vessel, no oxidation occurs. One commenter pointed to a study that was not cited by Wang’s team that suggests NaH can absorb enough oxygen to demonstrate oxidative properties (J. Org. Chem. 1965, 30, 2433). “There’s some really good science here,” but more work should have been done to vet the mechanistic proposals prior to publication, Docherty says. Wang tells C&EN that it’s possible that small amounts of air are involved in the mechanism but notes that the team will soon publish a more detailed mechanistic study as well as additional new reactivity.

Several readers have contacted JACS about the manuscript, JACS Editor Peter J. Stang says. It will remain on the Web but will not appear in print until the journal resolves the matter, which will take some time. As this case clearly indicates, blogs certainly facilitate the discovery of potential issues or concerns with manuscripts, Stang says. “When this is professionally and properly done, it definitely benefits science.”

These events wouldn’t have been possible without a trusted discussion outlet for posting results, not to mention an easy-to-run reaction that could be tested with widely available reagents. “Totally Synthetic” has hosted journal-club-like dialogue for more than three years and has loyal readers, a few of whom felt called to join in the experiment. At the same time, “Most research is not amenable to 24-hour replication,” says Bora Zivkovic, an online discussion expert for the Public Library of Science who runs the popular blog “A Blog Around The Clock.” Scientists often dissect new publications online, but doing the lab work to back it up is rare, if not a first, he adds.

When it comes to critiquing papers in the blogosphere, one of the positives is that blogs empower scientists to speculate and to raise contentious questions in writing, something that isn’t easy to do in traditional channels of scientific communication. Blogs also convene large groups of people with varied backgrounds to look at papers and discuss ideas. That process might unearth issues missed by two or three harried reviewers who are working in isolation.

But blogs have downsides, too. Discussions on the Web may be quick, but people may be passing judgment without having access to all the necessary information, says Jean-Claude Bradley, an organic chemist at Drexel University who regularly uses the Web’s social tools in research and teaching.

The anonymity on blogs is also worth considering. On blogs, it’s tough to figure out exactly who a commenter is, whereas a journal’s editor always knows the identity of a manuscript’s peer reviewers. On “Totally Synthetic,” regular reader Michael A. Tarselli, a postdoctoral associate at Florida’s campus of Scripps Research Institute, had never left a comment until posting his own results with the NaH chemistry. He used the alias “Scripps FL” instead of giving his real name because he wanted blog readers to focus on what he had to say rather than on his background.

Docherty tries to encourage those posting strong criticisms on “Totally Synthetic” to put their names behind their comments, an approach that doesn’t always work. “The comments I make can be taken with some credibility because everybody knows who I am,” he says.

Blogs haven’t replaced peer review. But they are a supplement that is growing in importance. Those who choose to dismiss blogs and other Web discussion outlets because of their flaws risk missing out on part of the process of science. Like it or not, the discussion is happening, and it’s in the best interest of everyone in the scientific community to take it seriously.



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