chem 2.0

ACS – Day 4: Peer-Review Reviewed

Wendy Warr gave a bleak and blistering critique on the current state of chemical peer-review at the recent ACS National Meeting in San Francisco. Her points are even more poignant as she is an associate editor for ACS. The salient features of her critique are listed below.

Problems with Peer-Review:

  • It can delay publications for months.
  • An editor can make or break a paper by sending it to the author’s friends or competitors.
  • Historically biased against women, single authors, etc…
  • It costs reviewers’ time (she gave a statistic that 41% of reviewers would like to be paid).
  • Reviewers tend to favor conservative science and not far-out new ideas.
  • Difficult finding qualified reviewers for multidisciplinary work.
  • Basing the quality of a paper on 2 reviewers, basically just 2-data points, is statistically insignificant.
  • As more papers are being submitted the burden for reviewers is increasing.

Warr did not give many solutions to these problems. However, she did point to resources addressing peer-review.

  • Peer-to-Peer – Nature’s blog specifically focusing on peer-review.
  • Naboj – A website where you can comment on arxiv papers and pubmed papers.
  • Faculty of 1000 – A website that tracks what authoritative people in the field think are the good current papers.

Unfortunately, Naboj and Faculty of 1000 do not really address the problems of peer-review. The former is just a comments hub, and the latter is just an aggregator. At the end of her talk George Purvis asked, why the government simply doesn’t setup a system for peer-review like ebay. Where submitters can have a trust scale associated with them, and people could thumb through the history of a reviewer. The idea of a peer-review ebay is seductive, but I doubt it would be greatly used; I could live without seeing “A+++++ paper will read again!!!!”

Bluntly speaking, you can not expect to have a vibrant peer-review community without a vibrant post-review community, and the chemical community seems decidedly averse to putting their name on-the-line.


Post Script: Before Dr. Warr began she made explicit that she was not speaking on behalf of the ACS-Pubs machine but as an independent scientist.

By March 25, 2010 10 comments chem 2.0

ACS Mobile

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

ACS has released an app that streams new ACS graphical abstracts to your iphone. Unfortunately you have to pay $2.99 for the app. A free alternative I wrote can be found at the mobile site for ChemFeeds.

The nice thing about my version is it works for any mobile device that gets internet and not just iphones. It also covers RSC and Elsevier journals in addition to ACS. You can email article links to yourself for later reading and even leave comments on the abstracts. Admittedly the ACS version looks sleek, but iphones only apps are worthless for us Android users.

Link to C&EN’s ACS Mobile coverage: ACS Publications Go Mobile

Link to ChemFeeds Mobile:

Note: If you are not a member of the smart phone community yet, you can still get your graphical abstracts fix at the regular ChemFeeds website:


By March 18, 2010 4 comments chem 2.0

Online Textbooks: ChemWiki Part 1

I remember buying my first O-chem books back when I was attending DVC (Diablo Valley College), a not-so-little community college here in the Bay Area. At first I checked the bookstore and lost my lunch when I saw the price of the new books. The text was $215, the lab manual was another $70, and the solutions manual was $100. Unfortunately, a new edition had been released that year, so even though the professor said that we could use older editions, many of the problem sets wouldn’t match up, so we’d have to get the problems from our classmates. In the end, the cheapest and most convenient route was to go online and buy the international editions. Even after extending the method to all my other classes, I still paid almost $500 for books that semester. Now I attended DVC before California went belly-up, so my classes were still a great bargain at $18 a unit. Since I usually took ~19 units, my total tuition cost was around $350 a semester. The cost of the books were actually greater than my cost of tuition. The sad thing is, this wasn’t an unusual case. Luckily this wasn’t too much of a hardship for me; I had a job on campus and money saved up. However, I knew a lot of students for whom the beginning of the semester meant not eating lunch in order to save up gas money.

Now students have probably been complaining about textbooks since time immemorial. Aristotle probably complained that his scribe made spelling mistakes in his copy of The Republic. Most of the time our bellyaching is justified. Not only do textbooks cost a lot, but there is often a gross amount of errors in them. Everyone knows that the first time you find a caption or answer wrong, it makes the rest of the book suspect. Also, these errors give the publishers a reason to release a next edition…that never seems to fix even half of the errors. However, they do switch around problem numbers, add a few pages of new content, and possibly even rearrange chapters. So now the professors lesson and homework plan, that goes by chapter numbers, page numbers, and problem numbers, is moot. And the student is effectively forced to buy the new edition (price “adjusted for inflation”) or suffer some inconveniences. Most choose to simply buy the new edition since tracking down the old one can be difficult and you have to be quick. Also, sometimes bookstores won’t buy back the old edition so if you had it, and an edition switch occurred before you finished your course track, you are up the creek.

Some of these issues can be addressed with online textbooks. The idea of supplementing physical texts with online modules has been around and implemented by publishers for many years. However, I’ve yet to see a good entirely online chemistry textbook. The advantages of online texts are of many: accessible anywhere you get 3G or Wi-Fi and have your mobile device, interactive learning capabilities, easy distribution, instant update/revision, and low cost publishing (server fees). Of course this won’t necessarily result the publisher make more money, but at 4 billion (yea, you read that correctly, billion) dollars a year, the industry doesn’t really need much help.

The student, however, does. We need these online textbooks, not just to save our wallet, but also to help prevent being stuck with an expensive and lousy text for a year that does a poor job of explaining the material. That expensive O-Chem book I bought really was terrible and it forced my professor to do a lot of extra work in teaching us not to follow the book’s direction of simply memorizing 500 reactions, but to see the patterns and the underlying physical explanations. In the end, we learned from his powerpoints and I paid $215 for a glorified reference book.

Well, some people are pioneering an effort to create an “Open Access Textbook”. In a perfect example of “chem 2.0”, UC Davis Professor Delmar Larsen is the project director of the ChemWiki, a truly free online textbook written by everyone, for everyone. In an absolutely Herculean effort, the developers and Larsen (Mary Obrien, Ron Rusay, Brent Krueger, Michelle McCombs) are trying to create a free and complete, as in covering all branches, chemistry textbook using a community of students, faculty, and outside experts from around the world. Of course they aren’t there yet, and there is still a long way to go but hey, their text literally gets better everyday.

Now I know you probably have a lot of questions: what about correctness and plagiarism? Could such a thing ever be considered an Authority? What do the publishers say? Does anyone actually use the thing? Well, it just so happened that a couple of weeks ago, I was at Davis for the Borge fellowship visitation and I had a chance to talk with professor Larsen who agreed to answer some of these questions for me. In a couple of days, I’ll post the interview here. For now, I suggest you go and check out and browse not just through the core, but the wikitexts and community as well.

Smart companies do smart things: Materia has a blog

So it’s not like anyone NEEDS encouragement to think about using olefin metathesis in their chemistry, but in case you wanted to talk to real experts, Materia (the company founded by Grubbs et al. to commercialize metathesis) has recently opened a blog called All Things Metathesis.

It’s got some literature reviews and stuff, but most helpful for chemists is the best practices category, where they explore how to plan your metathesis reactions and how best to purify them. So very 2003 to say this, but blogging is a great medium for businesses to communicate with their customers. This is a really nice example. They have comments, so you can even talk to metathesis experts!

So how long before there’s an Ask Dr. Metathesis column, where frustrated grad students write in with their late-night isomerization angst?

By November 3, 2009 1 comment chem 2.0