Is Chemistry Incompatible with Web 2.0?

(This post is in response to the April 19 editorial in C&E News.  For the response to the May 10 editorial, click here)

A recent ChemJobber post notes that C&E News Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum‘s editorials sometimes have a tendency to approach the controversial – and sometimes the purely political.  I wanted to discuss this weeks editorial which threatens to call into question much of my online existence (sorry, Mitch.  If Rudy’s right, I think you’re about to spontaneously e-implode).

In this week’s editorial, “The Limits of Web 2.0,” Baum decries the cliché “information wants to be free” for both its out-of-context usage (the full quote says information wants to be expensive because it is valuable and free because the cost of information dissemination is shrinking almost hourly – thus a struggle) and for its lunacy (information can’t wish for anything – it’s inanimate).  Rather, Baum says that it’s people who wish that information would be free.  I’d amend Baum’s correction slightly.  People really want information to be free and readily accessible.  I’d argue public libraries have long made most information “free,” if you were willing to do the legwork to get it.

But the bulk of Baum’s editorial promotes Jaron Lanier’s book You are Not a Gadget: A Manefesto, and summarizes Lanier’s main points, namely that the wisdom of crowds can be dangerous and science should be loath to adopt web 2.0 ideals.  Lanier points out that around the turn of century, a “torrent (a word hijacked by the web 2.0 crowd -ed.) of petty designs sometimes called web 2.0″ flooded the web.  And through the use of web 2.0, we apparently are losing sight of the trees for the forest, er, the taggers for the cloud.

Baum writes in his editorial (cross-posted for free on the web 2.0 CENtral Science blog, natch), “The essence of what Lanier is saying is that individuals are important and that we’re losing sight of that at our own peril in elevating the wisdom of the crowd to a higher plane than the creativity of a single person.”  That is, we are valuing the cloud more than the individuals, when the cloud can’t exist – and has no meaning – without the existence of the individuals.  Lanier notes that collective intelligence can be used well, but only when guided by individuals who can direct the course of the hive mind and help steer clear of common groupthink pitfalls.

But the most interesting quote comes near then end, when Baum quotes Lanier as saying that scientific communities “achieve quality through a cooperative process that includes checks and balances, and ultimately rests on a foundation of goodwill and ‘blind’ elitism.”  I’m not really sure what that means…

But to Lanier’s thesis that science ought to be wary of embracing web 2.0 and its ideals, I find it interesting that Baum writes his editorial at C&E News, the magazine of the ACS, whose flagship publication, the Journal of the American Chemical Society, has featured a JACSβ page for some time now.  The same C&E News whose blog has become so popular that it had to split off into several child blogs.  Where each post for each ACS article has links to share the article on one of several social networking sites.  Where scientists can now browse their favorite article on their iphones with ACSMobile.  While perhaps late to the party in some areas, the American Chemical Society has certainly ‘logged on’ to web 2.0 as a way to export content to the web-savvy scientist.

Plus, we have our own Mitch, a one man walking encapsulation of web 2.0.  His most successful application is, in my opinion, the chemical forums, which typically sees between 8,000 and 11,000 visitors per day.  This blog seems to be a big hit, and his ChemFeeds is a one-stop source for your aggregated list of your favorite journals’ graphical abstracts.  All this innovation on Mitch’s part earned him an interview with David Bradley (of ScienceBase) in his chemistry WebMagazine, Reactive Reports.

There’s also the Chemistry Reddit as another outlet of chemistry news and notes.

In the inaugural issue of Nature Chemistry, the Nature Publishing Group recounted how they have completely bought into web 2.0 as a means of science communication – each issue of Nature Chemistry even features a roundup of their favorite posts from the chemical blogosphere (which reminds me, to the left, Mitch has also created an aggregated rss feed of several popular chemistry blogs).

And, of course, web 2.0 in the sciences has been discussed in the blogs several times over the years.  We have over 3 pages of posts categorized Web 2.0, mostly Mitch’s posts on new web 2.0 platforms he’s developed.  Jean-Claude Bradley writes about web 2.0 in response to a very interesting post at Nascent, a blog from the folks at Nature.

So, all of these prove that web 2.0 has been talked about many times in the context of science.  Has it worked?  With the exception of blogs, sadly I’m inclined to say no.  At least not yet.  And even with blogs (with the possible exception of All Things Metathesis, and In the Pipeline, though Derek isn’t allowed to talk about his work b/c of intellectual property issues), not a lot of academic or industry leaders are prone to blogging.  It’s not like we’re reading Phil Baran’s blog and getting inside his head on a daily basis.

Sure, there is a subculture of people who are active on the web 2.0 scene, but it surely hasn’t taken off as a medium for all chemists to enjoy.  It theoretically should.  Chemists are always benefited from communal sharing of results and information.  But there are still (and probably always will be) people who seem reluctant to join the new technological paradigm.  I like the way Timo Hannay words it in his post on Nascent,

“But it’s not up to the doubters to ‘get it’, it is up to those of us who support these developments to demonstrate their value. And if we can’t then they don’t deserve to be adopted and we don’t deserve to be heard.”

Especially if there are people at the position of Editor-in-Chief for arguably the top chemistry magazine denouncing the web 2.0 movement, clearly it has a ways to go before it will be appreciated by all to the point where web 2.0 is ‘taken for granted,’ where we don’t even realize what we’re doing when we post results and opinions via web 2.0 technologies.

Let’s get moving!


  1. Thanks for the generous words azmanam. When I read Rudy Baum’s editorial it reminded me of Roger Ebert’s post proclaiming video games are not an art form. Ebert fails to understand that video games can be art simply because he hasn’t played enough video games. I will always think Werner Herzog is an incompetent director simply because I have not seen enough movies.

    However, if the criticism leveled against Web 2.0 is that it hasn’t actually solved any scientific problems, then I would tend to agree. I think using the crowd to solve scientific problems has always suffered from not having a critical mass of scientists connected to the cloud, and it has also suffered because there is no great incentive to participate.

    Perhaps with cash rewards like Daniel Lipinski’s amendment to the 2010 NSF Reauthorization bill there will be enough incentive to have chemists plug in and work together to solve problems. This generation of chemists and older chemists probably need cash incentives to collaborate globally on new platforms but it won’t always be the case.

    I recently participated in MIT’s Mystery Hunt. It involved thousands of individuals (mostly undergraduates) connecting through google wave to work on solving puzzles. There was no real incentive besides trying to get your group to solve all the various puzzles first. It required a daunting amount of people’s time to solve these puzzles yet people gave an enormous amount of personal time to tackle them.

    I’m struck how easily it is for the youngest in our chosen profession (undergrads in this case) to readily give themselves freely to the cloud. Even though people like you and I might hold back, we’re always trying to figure the angle to flip what we’re doing into a paper or a line in our CV.

    Information may not be capable of exclaiming it wants to be free, but neither can heat. Yet all chemists know heat can be modeled, and information has tended to be more widely disseminated freely. In the end it doesn’t matter if we should be worried about the individual more than worrying about the crowd; there is a generation of chemists leaving high school that only know how to participate in society through the cloud, and it has always seem prudent to me to try and tap into that and make sure there are structures and platforms waiting for them.


    • However, if the criticism leveled against Web 2.0 is that it hasn’t actually solved any scientific problems, then I would tend to agree.

      I forgot to link back to our posts a while ago about Nanotation: the – ahem – ACS contest for using Web 2.0 to explain nanotechnology to e-grandmothers.

      So maybe we are starting to use Web 2.0 to solve the problem of public ignorance about chemistry?

  2. Unsure of the point of the editorial. I don’t think anyone who supports the notion of the Wisdom of the Crowds ever touts it as a panacea, merely a very effective complement to traditional ways of doing things, and one that is currently underplayed by e.g. the ACS, since its mechanism is stifled by closed data.

  3. Nice review of the editorial.

    There is one aspect I like to point out. Web 2.0 (blogging, wikis, etc) is a form of communication, nothing more nothing less. So, when observing that not a lot of senior scientists of blogging (or making use of other W2.0 media), this should not surprise, and certainly not be used as an argument that W2.0 is not working.

    The argument for this statement comes from the fact that any medium has the common pattern of information flows. The information sources seldom hit the mass media themselves (see the comment later), but it is secondary sources that pick up the news (e.g. vie news announcements) and write up their catch. Most popular blogs are *not* primary sources.

    Now, interestingly, unlike blogging, which is later in the news flow, twitter is much closer to the information source. I do not know the uptake of twitter among senior chemists, but the information sources in politics are happily using twitter; actually, they cannot afford not to tweet anymore.

    Point is, analyzing Web2.0 does not make sense if you consider all Web2.0 technologies as identical. Classical mistake, but then again, what can we expect from a chemist without training in mass media?

    • Certainly some technologies are more nimble than others when it comes to getting information out to the right people in a timely fashion. That leads me to ask… does chemistry benefit from having experimental results flash posted to the community at large? Or, put another way, how does instant dissemination fit in with our current paradigm of results publications?

      The peer-review process is arguably one of the slowest way to get information to the community (and, no, I don’t want this to turn into a discussion on the merits of peer-review, those thoughts can be directed here. Unlike politics (cynically), academia is bound by the limits of fact. Is a more measured release of data better for “hard core” science? It certainly has been true, though, that even under the best of intentions, falsified papers still get through and must later be retracted. what would happen to the rate of data falsification in a Twitter scientific environment?

  4. Thanks for the mention. I’m also not sure of Rudy’s point regarding the wisdom of crowds. In my experience, I’ve never met a crowd using Web2.0 – just lots of individuals. Some of those individuals have turned out to be collaborators – and even friends over time.

    Good timing though – I’m heading out today to the C&E News Advisory Board meeting 🙂 I expect we will be discussing some of the thoughts that Rudy expressed in that piece.

  5. Hey azmanam, I enjoyed reading your post. One thing that fascinated me when I went to ScienceOnline 2010 was that I was one of the younger folks there. Certainly in some disciplines (cosmology, evolution) it’s possible to find leaders in the field blogging and web 2.0’ing. (and off topic I think more chemistry bloggers like you and Mitch would get a kick out of this conference and plugging into this wider community… Jean-Claude, Cameron Neylon and a few others are the stalwarts but I say the more chemists the better).

    Second, I’m helping to organize a minisymposium on blogging/web 2.0 for the more pharma side of the blogosphere at the Boston ACS and would enjoy picking your brain sometime about what kinds of questions to ask panelists.

    Oh, and @Jean-Claude, see you this evening!

    • Carmen – my postdoc Michael, who is posting his data to the Synaptic Leap, will be at the ACS in Boston, and he’d be interested in the mini-symposium.

    • I sent you an email, but the biggest question I would have is how to walk the line between blogging in the full disclosure, open access world of web 2.0 and juggling your companies’ (understandable) intellectual property rules. Non-disclosure can make sharing your results and talking about your chemistry difficult in an industrial setting.

  6. Nice summary.

    Dear editor, we appreciate the warning of web 2.0, potentially the same could be given for non web 2.0 things (I will not go there, yet). Anyway, I personally do not like black and white scenarios and never did. So, I would appreciate more thinking about working together, not thinking about ways blaming the other side.

    Besides, I do not understand the following sentence in the editorial and I will explain why: “achieve quality through a cooperative process that includes checks and balances, and ultimately rests on a foundation of goodwill and ‘blind’ elitism.”

    As already said by Francis Crick:”Communication is the essence of science”
    So, if we assume
    then I see nothing, which should be wrong with that.

    Now, where is the “blind” coming from? This I do not understand.

    Is “blind” meaning collaboration or communication? Blind means non-transparent, (bounded) rational, or irrational, and all those aspects are exactly the opposite of good collaboration and communication. So, I would say he could not mean that?

    Is “blind” meaning goodwill and trust? Maybe he means that there is no process for checking contributions in the web 2.0 context and that the only quality control relies on trust and goodwil? Well, since their site does not even allow commenting on anything openly, this seems quite likely. So, dear editor, can you please put all this data into your process for sharing it in a curated way with us afterwards. The (untrusted) rest of us would appreciate this.

    Is “blind” meaning elitism and quality? Honestly, I personally find the overall opinion quite weak not even showing scientific evidence or a sufficient amount of references. So, dear editor, if you are really up for the challenge, please let us compare any data curation options you have against the scientific community data curation. Wikipedia is challenged on a regular level. Why not doing the same for science? Let us create some hard facts, not just some “blind” arguments.

    Best science 2.0 community collaboration regards,

    Joerg Kurt Wegner

    -) Jean-Claude … good luck with the discussion.
    -) Egon … had the same impression … my first thought was letting the editor name 10 scientific web 2.0 sources and then telling me what is wrong with them? Then we do the same with “non web 2.0” things he has in mind 😉

    • To be fair, the quote about blind elitism comes from Lanier’s book. the phrase isn’t Baum’s. I think you and I and others who read the quote all got hung up on the same part: ‘blind elitism.’ I think your dissection is a good one, and I’d also like to know what Baum thinks Lanier means by ‘blind elitism,’ and how Baum sees that playing out in the chemistry community.

  7. My answer to your question is “no”. However, it would be interesting to discuss what one means by Web 2.0.

    In principle Web 2.0 means better ways to communicate people to people, but a related the question is: Is the quality increased or the quantity? In my own experience (of course anyone can disagree), the Web 2.0 technologies (wikis,blogs,facebook…) increase the flow of information, the number of participants in a discussion, etc. but not necessarily the scientific quality of it.

    About Baum’s quote scientific communities achieve quality through a cooperative process that includes checks and balances, and ultimately rests on a foundation of goodwill and ‘blind’ elitism, I think that in the last part he is referring to the fact the value of science is not always tangible and that science is not a democracy.

    • While I see your reasoning in your second paragraph, allow me to throw some perhaps conflicting data your way.

      To be sure, more online bloggers, more things thrown on /r/chemistry, more commenters in more places leaving more snippets of information around with plausibly no citations lead to a large quantity of questionably accurate information.

      An analogous argument was probably made when the number of scientific journals starting increasing. Why do we need a bazillion chemistry journals on every little niche topic that no one’s going to read except other niche chemists? If we would just keep the Big Three (or Five or Nine or whatever), we could just keep the most accurate, hardest hitting science in the public realm. The analogy plays out further with the story a while ago about how many dozen papers and how many crystal structures retracted because the PI straight made up the crystal structures?

      But a corollary to the argument is given more information, the odds increase that something, somewhere will be valuable and/or ground-breaking. The live-blogging at Totally Synthetic will likely be remembered as a milestone moment in online chemistry, and Wegners’s example above is prototypical of using the People-to-PeopleYoudProbablyNeverMeetOtherwise model for finding the information you need.

      So while the quality as a whole may not increase, the sheer increase in number means that somewhere there will be something of quality by people who probably don’t qualify as the ‘elite.’

      • You say somewhere will be valuable and/or ground-breaking. I completely agree! My comments were about the Web 2.0 as a whole, not about the exceptional cases beyond the average.

        I have not done any statistical study, and I can be plain wrong, but my subjective impression -as a user- is that the average quality decreases.

  8. It would spectacularly awesome if Baum commented on this post. Just sayin’, C&EN bloggers.

  9. Thanks for the mention. That interview I did with Mitch was back in the spring of 2007, it’s still in the archive here –

  10. Well the C&EN meeting was very interesting and some of these issues were discussed. Unfortunately we were asked to not disclose details 🙁 Maybe Carmen can get permission to talk about some of the topics?

    • Very sad…. If only the information wanted to be free….

    • Jean-Claude … keeping confidential things confidential is fine.

      Still, if someone makes comments about public science communities then they should not wonder that the community starts asking questions. It is up to C&E to decide if they want to be a spark in (some) communities (just shouting at them from skyscrapers) or if they want to be a part of them, and that would require communicating with each other.

    • Martin J Sallberg says:

      One way to fight back against the peer review publication embargo is by using the system against itself. Since the traditional version of the peer review system denies publication to anything that has already been published elsewhere, the trick is to anticipate the next modification within a mainstream paradigm (that is, the next “normal science” modification, not the next paradigm shift) and publish it before it gets published in peer review. That mainstream theory will then be denied peer review publication! This does not require stealing any information, but can be done perfectly legally- by knowing your enemy and taking the “devil’s advocate” point of view. If you can already anticipate what “modifications” will be published within a mainstream paradigm next (that is, if you have successfully predicted such “modifications” before), then just start self-publishing what you expect the mainstreamists to claim next. If you can imagine not only one but a few alternatives of such, publish them all. That is, publish those that could be expected to be modifications within a mainstream paradigm, while preferably keeping those that could constitute paradigm shifts under your hat. And self-publish it openly accessible to anyone with Internet (e.g. blogs, forums, social media, wikis and so on) to increase the likelihood that the “redundant publication” detector of the peer review system will detect it (and thus deny it peer review publication). Publication on less accessible parts of the Internet (such as ebooks or freenet) is not as efficient since it decreases the chances of detection, and physical books are even less efficient. Also, it should of course be in English. Alternative email alias and pseudonym may be used if you do not want to appear publicly as a front fighre of a mainstream paradigm. If you are not so good at predicting how the mainstream paradigms will “modify” their theories next (that is, if you either never listen to or read what the mainstreamists actually say, or are taken completely by surprise most or all times you actually do), you should read their publications to know your enemy and become better at anticipating what they may claim next. When many people do this and mainstream paradigms are thus prevented from getting their “modifications” published in any respected peer review journals that follows the embargo model, the tyranny of the peer review publication embargo will at last lose its support and be deposed.

  11. An editorial on azmanam’s post will appear in the May 10 issue of C&EN.

    As to the quote from Lanier that seems to have mystified several of you, in science, some would have us believe that web 2.0 technology should become the new mode of communicating and evaluating science, replacing traditional journals that select papers through the peer review process. That is what I think Lanier was commenting on. He wrote that scientific communities “achieve quality through a cooperative process that includes checks and balances, and ultimately rests on a foundation of good will and ‘blind’ elitism.” What I think Lanier was referring to was anonymous peer review and the fact that science remains a meritocracy.

    • Thank you for your comments. I look forward to reading the editorial.

      We have discussed peer-review multiple times on this blog, most recently in a post by Mitch and a post by newcomer orgopete. Both had interesting points to make on the subject, and the comment discussion that followed was also stimulating. I encourage you to read both of those discussions.

      The merits of peer-review should allow only the highest quality science through the filter screen… however we have seen several cases in just the last few years (autism/vaccines, crystal structures, Merck’s journal, and several other retracted papers) where that ‘foundation of good will’ has been shattered and the checks have bounced. Does that mean peer-review is fatally flawed and must be abandoned? Of course not, nor am I suggesting that.

      I enjoy reading your editorials, even if I sometimes disagree. I look forward to our cyber conversations in the future.

    • in science, some would have us believe that web 2.0 technology should become the new mode of communicating and evaluating science, replacing traditional journals that select papers through the peer review process.

      Really? Maybe I’m wrong, but I find the above statement to be overestimating the web 2.0 crowd’s desires.

      • I’ve met professors that want to get rid of peer review for something more open. But I also don’t think the web 2.0 boosters overlap with the anti-peer review crowd, not significantly in our generation at least. Open doesn’t mean web 2.0.

  12. Pingback: More On Web 2.0 | The Editor's Blog

  13. Pingback: Chemistry Blog » Blog Archive » How Can Science Embrace Web 2.0: A Response to Rudy Baum

  14. In answer to the opening question, “Is Chemistry Incompatible with Web 2.0?” I sure hope not as I have started my own site for Chem. based on 2.0.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *