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How The Internet Helps Cultivate Collaborations

Chemistry partnerships blossom around the world, thanks to electronic communications, video conferencing, and data storage tools

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

Illustration of the world connected through electronics.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

Nurturing a successful research collaboration is a lot like tending a garden. Give it care and attention, and in time it will flower and bear fruit. Twenty-five years ago, scientists only had the most rudimentary tools to cross-pollinate their ideas. Obliged to communicate by telephone, fax, and snail mail, most chemists found it easiest to establish collaborations with researchers at their home universities. After all, tending a plant down the hall is much easier than caring for one on the other side of the world.

The Internet has changed all that. E-mail, videoconferencing, and data-sharing sites have allowed chemistry collaborations to flourish in ways no one could have imagined three decades ago.

Before the Internet, it was hard to collaborate with someone who wasn’t close geographically unless you knew them well, says Joan S. Valentine, a biochemistry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I wouldn’t say the Internet increased the number of my collaborations,” she notes. “It increased the quality of my collaborations.”

One popular Internet tool Valentine points to is the file-sharing and storage site Dropbox. She uses it to share data and drafts of papers with collaborators. “Dropbox is just so easy,” she says. “You put files in it, and they’re accessible anywhere. And you don’t have to learn anything.” People, she says, are reluctant to adopt technology tools that they must invest a lot of time learning how to use.

Scientists also say that video calling services, such as Skype, have dramatically transformed their ability to collaborate. Being able to see someone’s facial expressions as you’re discussing science provides something that you just don’t get with a phone call, Valentine says. You get to see their skepticism or enthusiasm. It’s closer to being in the same room, she explains.

And if videoconferencing adds quality to collaborations between two principal investigators, it’s absolutely critical in maintaining a partnership of 24. So says Huw M. L. Davies, Emory University chemistry professor and director of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Selective C–H Functionalization. The center brings together two dozen diverse research groups with the goal of transforming C–H functionalization chemistry from fundamental reactions to practical processes for industry.

When the center was founded in 2008, it involved six different principal investigators at four universities. “Because we hadn’t collaborated before and we were involving chemists with complementary science, but who could be competing as well, it involved a totally different level of engagement,” Davies explains. “For us to be successful, communication was critical.”

So Davies began using a videoconferencing service called Vidyo to link the research groups in regular meetings. “What’s really nice about the system is that you can use it in a videoconference room, but you can also use it on your home computer,” Davies says. “That allowed us to collaborate with people with different levels of technical sophistication. If everyone needed to have a videoconference room, it would have been problematic.”

Now the center meets weekly using a Vidyo conference call that includes as many as 80 different people at 30 different sites. The service displays the person who is presenting data at the meeting as well as small windows showing the last eight participants to speak during the call.

“When you get used to seeing people like this, it just becomes a normal meeting,” Davies says. “There’s humor. There’s frank exchange. There’s good, honest criticism.”

“Collaboration has been the most important part of my life that’s been transformed by the Internet,” says Matthew S. Sigman, a chemistry professor at the University of Utah. As one of the investigators in the Center for Selective C–H Functionalization, Sigman gathers a few students in front of his office computer each week to participate in the conference call.

He also uses video calling services to communicate with a dozen or so collaborators, who are based in locations as far-flung as Switzerland and Japan. “My most effective collaborations have been over the last five or six years, and I think that’s because of Skype and related technology,” he says.

But Sigman notes that the global connectedness brought about by the Internet has a downside too. “I think the Internet requires you to work way too much. There’s no quiet time,” he says. “The flip side is that we can do some really amazing science.”  

Publication made easy, by Peter Stang


As a journal editor, I’ve witnessed firsthand how the Internet has greatly changed scientific publishing. It has improved the speed and ease of publication, eliminating overstuffed mailboxes and arguments with the postal service about heavy packages containing multiple large manuscripts. The rate-determining step in publishing generally has been and remains peer review. But the Internet allows facile selection of and rapid communication with reviewers, as well as the ability to easily send multiple reminders to recalcitrant reviewers. Communication with authors has become so simple that authors sometimes expect instant responses to their inquiries. Most important, I no longer have to go to the library to look up references or closely related journal publications; I can easily access those articles from my comfortable office chair.

All of the convenience also has greatly increased submissions. For example, the number of manuscripts submitted to the Journal of the American Chemical Society every year has more than doubled over the past decade. This is also a reflection of the increasing significance and wealth of chemical research happening across the world, as well as a result of the pressure to publish. This pressure has also resulted in a significant increase in the number of new journals. Fortunately, the Internet allows both ready search of and easy access to this rapidly growing chemical literature.

What the Internet has not done is cultivate more civilized communication. On rare occasions, you still get unhappy phone calls from authors whose manuscripts have been declined.

Peter J. Stang is a chemistry professor at the University of Utah and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.


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