How Can Science Embrace Web 2.0: A Response to Rudy Baum

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

First, I want to thank Rudy Baum, editor-in-chief of C&E News, for taking the time to respond to my commentary.  I know he probably has other issues he’d rather talk about on his editorial page, and I appreciate the engagement in this dialogue.

I’d like to continue the dialogue here and I hope to keep this conversation going – at least informally – for a long time.

Mr. Baum and I seem to agree that Web 2.0 is a part of science now; however, we may disagree on the merits of SciW2.0.  If you don’t believe SciW2.0 has arrived, consider that the fact that you are even privy to this conversation.  Not only do I have a W2.0 platform upon which I can comment on C&E News editorials, but within days the comments were populated with a who’s who of SciW2.0 leaders offering their opinions and helping shape the conversation.  And the conversation became so loud that it prompted an editor-in-chief to write an entire editorial in response to, essentially, a nobody in the chemistry world (let’s face it.  I certainly don’t count myself in the elite of chemistry, blind or not).  That all of these things can happen within a month – and without any face-to-face meetings between any of the players – proves the establishment of SciW2.0 as a communication tool.

Now, before we continue, I want to re-link to this blog post on Nature‘s Nascent blog.  In my opinion, this post is a must read for anyone who wants to engage this discussion.  It is a nice overview of SciW2.0, its strengths and especially its weaknesses.  Why there’s resistance to SciW2.0, why academic and industry leaders aren’t all buying in, and why he’s committed to making SciW2.0 successful.  It really is mandatory, and I’ll wait for you to click over and read it now.

(lounge music break) 🙂

While severely cautioning people about SciW2.0 (but not denouncing), Baum seems to want to walk a fine line.  It’s dangerous, it’s not a panacea, he reads blogs, he’s not an opponent of all W2.0, he agrees with author Jaron Lanier when he warns scientists not to adopt W2.0 ideals, and he finds proponents of W2.0 overenthusiastic.  Perhaps he is just cautioning scientists against ‘irrational exuberance’ when it comes to buying in to SciW2.0.  And those warnings would be well heeded (although I doubt we’re anywhere near the irrationally exuberant days of SciW2.0).  My question for Baum is: if he doesn’t think SciW2.0 is a panacea, does he think the current model for scientific communication (peer-reviewed journals) is a utopia?  And if not, what would he suggest happen differently?

As to his comment about the panacea of W2.0 and how it ‘changes everything’ as he says W2.0 proponents adamantly claim, I suspect he’s referring to Don Tapscott’s and Anthony Williams’ book Wikinomic: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.  I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment on it.  But I would imagine, as is true in other areas of life, when people mention ‘everything,’ they rarely mean things like cutting edge academic and scientific research.  Rather, I imagine people mean ‘everyday things,’ usually for everyday people.  I’ll link here to notes by Will Richardson on W2.0 and how it’s changing politics, government, journalism, and business, and how it is starting to change education.  So while it seems to be changing certain industries, I’ll admit that it’s not changing everything.  In fact, I don’t think any of the commenters on the other post thought so, either.  Pop science is not the same as pop culture and does not think the same way.  Comments made in one arena are not necessarily transferable to the other arena.

But rather than getting into a hair-splitting contest over who used what words and who meant what, I propose to move the conversation forward in a different direction.  My open question: What should SciW2.0 look like, and how will we know it’s successful?

W2.0 is ultimately a communication tool.  It harnesses the power and dexterity of the internet and allows people to communicate with each other in ways never before possible and on timescales never before possible.  In certain circles (politics, pop culture), if you’re not actively following the W2.0 scene, you’re way behind and have nothing to bring to the table.  Not so in SciW2.0.  If you’re following SciW2.0, you’re reading about and reacting to people’s analysis of things that happened in the past.  Missing a week or two won’t put you behind, because by and large you’ve already read the same papers and seen the same announcements.

I doubt that SciW2.0 will become an instant data/paper communicating tool for hard science anytime soon the way it has in other aspects of life.  I agree with the reasoning by Timo Hannay in the Nascent link:

[E]ven if the direct financial cost of sharing this information is low, the cost in terms of scooped findings, rejected papers and grant applications, and perhaps even diminished reputation could be very high. … It’s sad, but most scientists don’t publish in order to share results with their peers, they do so in order to secure grant funding and promotions. We know this because when we provide ways of sharing information that do not affect their likelihood of getting funding or promotions – such as preprint servers for biologists – most don’t use them.

There will always be a place for reactionary SciW2.0.  Communities of people talking about science and sharing ideas and information cannot hurt anyone.  But because there’s rarely breaking news coverage on SciW2.0 (see Totally Synthetic’s sodium hydride oxidation post for an example of breaking news coverage), the majority of chemists don’t seem to find the need to tune in regularly.

Before we’ll get large numbers of people on board, in my opinion, might we need to make SciW2.0 less reactionary and more innovative?   I think we’ve started seeing bits and pieces of that scattered throughout, and that might be how we make it more appealing to the science community at large.  I mentioned in the comments previously that ACS had their NanoTube contest, which asked users to upload original videos explaining ‘What is Nano’ in an clear and entertaining way.  Perhaps this is the way science utilizes W2.0 in a productive manner.  Demystifying aspects of science to make it accessible to anyone curious about science, but perhaps without the training.

But, as the Nascent link alludes to, other types of crowd sourcing have not been as successful.  Nature‘s open peer-review system posted a small number of ‘opt in’ papers online and asked the crowd to review and comment on them before being accepted to the journal.  The open peer-review process happened concurrently with the ‘typical’ closed, anonymous peer-review process.  As noted if you listen to the audio version of the talk, it added no apparent value, but a lot more work for the Nature folks, so they abandoned the experiment.  I suspect it was just ahead of its time.

We may look to the results of a current crowd sourcing experiment to see if the time is right yet.  The Haystack, one of CENtral Science’s child blogs, reports on the expansion of the Pool for Open Innovation against Neglected Tropical Diseases.  In this experiment, scientists dump patented information into an open pool, and different users around the world are able to access the data to try to make progress on treatments for neglected diseases.  It will be interesting to watch that story unfold over the next few years.

I guess I don’t really know what SciW2.0 needs to look like to be successful. … But I bet I know a way to get some of the brightest minds in the field together to think about it communally! 🙂  I’d love to hear from people what their ideas are for the future of SciW2.0 and how to make it more commonplace in the field.

Finally, I’d like to say to Baum (and everyone else reading), if you haven’t read Who Moved My Cheese?, then pick it up from the library on the way home tonight and read it.  It will take maybe an hour, and it can be read in the easy chair after dinner while watching 24 if you’d like.  The cheese is moving, Rudy, I just don’t know where to, yet.


  1. Anneliese Amacher says:

    I would love to see comments and perhaps ratings on the articles. For example, a recent paper in JACS included the solvent peaks in the integration of product peak areas in NMR spectra. That is sloppy science that I would love to see pointed out in a public arena. Perhaps authors and editors would be held to higher standards.

  2. Once again, Mr. Baum states that “[i]n 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.”

    I humbly ask again, who are these bold folks? And why don’t they like adding entries to their CV?

  3. The only way you can make chem 2.0 innovative is to have individuals who are bold enough to freely discuss preliminary results online.

  4. Pingback: Chemistry Blog » Blog Archive » Is Chemistry Incompatible with Web 2.0?

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

  6. We do agree that SciW2.0 has arrived, but it’s what you refer to later in your post as “reactionary” SciW2.0—“communities of people talking about science and sharing ideas.” Which is exactly what this exchange is. I’m not sure I’d characterize it as “reactionary,” but it isn’t changing the practice of science. I know SciW2.0 is useful for exchanging ideas about how science is done and communicated and the job prospects for scientists and the like, but the question you raise, and the whole point of Timo Hannay’s Nature post, is whether SciW2.0 is useful for doing science.

    You make an interesting point that “because there’s rarely breaking news coverage on SciW2.0, … the majority of chemists don’t seem to find the need to tune in regularly.” From my point of view as EIC of C&EN (and having worked for C&EN for 30 years), this observation long predates SciW2.0. We created C&EN Online in 1998, and we’ve put a lot of work into it. It’s become pretty successful in recent years, especially since we’ve been posting several “Latest News” stories every day. But when we ask practicing chemists why they don’t use C&EN Online, they inevitably say something to the effect, “The chemistry news you report is news to me when I read it in the print edition of C&EN. I don’t need to know it any sooner than that.”

    There is actually a distinct difference in the way the reporters in C&EN’s Science/Technology/Education Department function from the way reporters in C&EN’s Business and Government & Policy Departments function because of the dichotomy between business and government news, which actually “breaks” in real time, and chemistry news, which has an entirely artificial way of breaking, that is, when it is reported in a journal. This is a central element of the way science is practiced—research is performed, it is vetted through the peer review process, and published. The communication process has speeded up a lot in recent years because of technology, but it is still a staged process. This reality drives some science journalists nuts because of the artificiality of calling the release of a paper in a journal—nowadays, on a journal’s website—“news.”

    Do I think this constitutes a utopia? Of course not. There are all kinds of things that one can criticize about the entire process. Scientists and others have been criticizing aspects of it for a very long time. It does, however, work. Science as it is practiced today is one of the most successful human endeavors. It is going to evolve—it has been evolving dramatically in the last couple of decades—in the face of technology, including the technology represented by SciW2.0. But I don’t think we have any idea how SciW2.0 currently can improve the existing process. That’s why I don’t think there’s been a rush among practicing scientists, especially chemists, to embrace it.

  7. I’m still not entirely sure I grasp what Web 2.0 is, but I have to thank you (very, very late) for the Chem dictionary. If I’m not mistaken, this falls into the category of Web 2.0 advancement and it improved my life immensely. Thanks again for that.

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