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A Conversation Starter

Blogs have given chemists a platform to discuss ideas in the open

by Derek Lowe
August 16, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 32

Vector graphic of dialogue boxes.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

I began writing In the Pipeline in January 2002, which makes it almost certainly the oldest chemistry blog still in existence, and possibly the oldest science blog of any type. I freely admit that I thought I would run out of material fairly soon, which is equivalent to freely admitting that I’m something of a fool. Material to write about has never stopped coming, a constant flow of news and analysis, and that hasn’t changed a bit over the lifetime of the blog.

Derek Lowe works in drug discovery and writes at In the Pipeline at Science Translational Medicine (
Mug of Derek Lowe
Derek Lowe works in drug discovery and writes at In the Pipeline at Science Translational Medicine (

What has changed is the environment around it. When I started blogging, the entire format was new to most people, and I found myself spending a fair amount of time explaining what a “blog” was. Now people know the format, but I’ve lost count of how many times the entire idea of blogging has been declared outmoded. But it isn’t. That’s because the idea behind many blogs—a chance to state your case and make your opinions heard—is not something that goes in and out of fashion.

Back in 2002, there weren’t as many places for chemists to express their opinions. You could write to a journal editor if something concerned you or send a letter to C&EN. Of course, these routes both involved editorial controls and gatekeepers.

The Internet changed that. Blogs, no matter how we define them, gave chemists an alternative platform, a chance to be heard without any intermediaries. Everyone got their own printing press and mailing service, to make of it what they wished. Chemists, I think it’s fair to say, are not a quiet bunch inclined to keep their opinions to themselves. So they relished the new modes of communication.

One of the highest-profile uses of blogs has been serving as a counterpoint to the traditional model of journal publishing. Before chemistry blogs, the editorial staff at a journal served up a certain number of published papers per year, via processes that weren’t completely transparent, and all we chemists could do was read them. There was no place to do anything else. No one could tell if people had paid attention to a given paper, and if there were complaints about it, they were handled quietly—sometimes so quietly that it was impossible for the readers to even notice.

But now there’s a whole community of chemistry bloggers who take time to comment on the latest in the literature and a large cohort of blog readers who alert them to interesting or controversial papers. Sites such as PubPeer and Retraction Watch are devoted exclusively to postpublication peer review across all fields of science. Good work gets praised, and dubious work gets questioned in the open. For example, in 2013, Chemistry Blog uncovered some blatant image manipulation in two nanochemistry papers. (C&EN’s Mitch A. Garcia was the blogger at Chemistry Blog who found the questionable images.) These images, and discussion of them, quickly spread to other chemistry blogs. The publicity launched an investigation by the journals and the researchers’ university, leading to the retraction of the papers.

Not everyone, authors and editors alike, is comfortable with what blogs do. In some cases, journal editorial staffs have tried to quiet things down by calling for people to follow established policies and procedures for commenting on papers instead of discussing things on the blogosphere. But these attempts have had an entertaining lack of success. Personally, I’m fine with that. Publishing your work—be it a scientific paper, a newspaper article, or your first novel—does not place it on a golden pedestal, safe from the criticism of lesser (unpublished!) beings. Putting your work in front of the public actually opens it to commentary from all comers, and always has. We just have better ways now of making that commentary heard by a large audience.

Is all of the commentary on blogs worth reading? Definitely not. But not all the papers that get published in journals are worth reading, either. What blogs do is allow people to read various opinions, pass them on to others, add their own thoughts, and make up their own minds about the validity of the discussion. There is, to be honest, a lot more food for thought in a good comments section than there is in many a published article. The bad comments sections, of course, are malarial swamps, but those are easily avoided.

Ideas and opinions have always contended with each other, and if we’re lucky, they always will. My recommendation is to do your best work, write your best papers, and take your best shots.

A watercooler for the world of chemistry, by Paul Bracher

My chemistry blog, ChemBark, was born of disenchantment. As a student, I was continually stunned by how things “worked” in the world of academic chemistry.

I saw absurdly unfair referee reports and peer review decisions. I saw abjectly dysfunctional student-adviser relationships. I saw actions dictated by academic politics rather than logic. I saw egregious violations of safety. I saw scientific misconduct in black and white, and several shades of gray. Weren’t scientists supposed to be above these things?

So, I started talking about them. And rather than talking in a hushed voice, behind closed doors, and only to my friends, I decided to start a blog. The discussion would be public, and anyone who wanted could read and comment themselves.

Perhaps no story garnered as much interest as the horrific case of data fabrication perpetrated by Bengü Sezen, a Columbia University graduate student who made up data in her work on C–H activation. From initial reports in 2005, to news of the retractions in 2006, to a Freedom of Information Act document request in 2010, the blogosphere took the lead in communicating the story to the community with candor, accuracy, and detail.

Over the years, several discussions on blogs have drawn the ire of chemical bigwigs, including editors-in-chief and eminent professors. But when the people in charge of a broken system start griping, it’s probably a sign you’re on the right track.

Paul Bracher is an assistant professor at Saint Louis University and runs the chemistry blog ChemBark (

Spreading science globally with Wikipedia, by John Sadowski

To paraphrase Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia isn’t just an online encyclopedia; it’s a statement about the kind of world we want to live in.

I’ve been involved in DNA nanotechnology research for well over a decade now. When “nanotechnology” began showing up increasingly in the popular media, I knew that people would look it up on Wikipedia. So in 2006, I began editing entries on the site to help users find accurate, unbiased information.

But my efforts had a wider reach than I anticipated. Others took it upon themselves to translate the Wikipedia article I created on DNA nanotechnology into 15 languages other than English, from Italian to Turkish to Sinhalese. In addition to being personally satisfying, these translations brought scientific knowledge to parts of the world where formal education, and the benefits that come with it, are not readily available. There might be a young student somewhere in Sri Lanka learning about nanotechnology for the first time because of something I wrote.

As a postdoc looking toward applying for faculty positions, I am often told that only peer-reviewed publications matter. Yet, universities are nonprofit organizations whose charitable mission is to provide access to education. Digital media is making it easier for academics to reach beyond their own students, whether that means educating laymen or making knowledge freely available to those without the advantages of a formal education. Funding agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere are beginning to consider these societal impacts when awarding grants. I hope it’s not long before universities and colleges looking to hire faculty do the same.

John Sadowski recently completed a postdoc at the Naval Research Laboratory, in Washington, D.C. He’s made more than 11,000 edits to Wikipedia entries.


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