Electronic chemistry conferences on the Internet's World Wide Web began only last November, but already a second generation of such conferences has sprouted. In its deployment of new technological approaches, a recent Electronic Conference on Trends in Organic Chemistry (ECTOC-1) - the first of the new generation - has moved well beyond the earlier experimental stage of development.
ECTOC-1, which ended in mid-July, is thus providing an indication of where these electronic interchanges are headed as they assume a more significant role in disseminating chemical information. Certainly the conference reflected a good deal of thought by its organizers on what the nature of such conferences can and should be.
The first electronic conference with organic chemistry as its main theme, ECTOC-1 was an activity of the CLIC consortium in the U.K. The CLIC consortium takes its name from its members: Cambridge University, Leeds University, Imperial College (London), and the Royal Society of Chemistry at Cambridge. CLIC's primary objective is to introduce and set standards for fundamentally new ways of communicating chemistry.
Central to any type of chemistry conference, electronic or otherwise, is the chemistry itself. And ECTOC-1 had a strong focus on the conference topic.
"That, I suppose, really is the most important thing of all about the conference," says Henry S. Rzepa, a reader in organic chemistry at Imperial College, one of the editors of ECTOC-1, and one of the driving forces behind the CLIC consortium. "The organic chemistry community has really done us proud by offering some very high-quality science indeed," he adds.
"I've been absolutely delighted - overwhelmed - by not only the magnitude of the response but by the quality of the chemistry that's come in. There have been some superb chemistry papers, where literally you forget about the technology, and you really just sort of wallow in the pure science and chemistry of it," Rzepa says.
Still, what stamps ECTOC-1 as a second-generation electronic chemistry conference is the way technology was employed by the organizers and by authors in their individual papers. Indeed, their efforts are providing a framework for further evolution of the electronic conference concept.
In its general approach, ECTOC-1 operated much like the two initial electronic chemistry conferences held last November on the World Wide Web (C&EN, Dec. 12, 1994). The web, or WWW, is a network-based document delivery system, a part of the Internet that operates through hyperlinks. Hyperlinks are underlined words, phrases, or images that act as links to other documents or document fragments.
One of the two earlier conferences, the First Electronic Computational Chemistry Conference (ECCC), was sponsored through a grant by the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, with organization of the event centered at Northern Illinois University, De Kalb. The other, InCINC '94, dealt with chemometrics and was sponsored by the North American chapter of the International Chemometrics Society and the publishing firm Elsevier, along with the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, Richland, Wash., where the organization of that conference was centered.
As with those conferences, papers and posters for ECTOC-1 were mounted by authors on a main conference web server or on servers at their own sites. There were no fees for the conference. The items could thus be accessed by anyone with a web browser, such as Mosaic or Netscape (the address is http://www.ch.ic.ac.uk/ectoc/). To ease delays in connecting to the main conference server in the U.K., a North American "mirror" of the server was operated at Northern Illinois University by associate professor of chemistry Steven M. Bachrach, who had coordinated the ECCC event.
For discussion, ECTOC-1 conferees used e-mail, an approach similar to that of the earlier conferences. Public discussion via the conference server was limited to registrants. However, bilateral discussions were also held between parties. Since each paper or poster was directly linked to the principal author, direct communication with authors was extremely simple and could be kept private.
Among other basic aspects of ECTOC-1, papers were subjected to independent peer review, and posters were refereed by the conference scientific advisory panel. Also, Chemical Abstracts indicated it would regard the papers as genuine scholarly works to be abstracted in the accepted way, assuming they reported new chemical information and were original publications (abstracting of posters, which would be treated as brief scientific communications suitable for abstracting, would be dependent on Chemical Abstracts' review of their individual contents). Plans are for the papers to remain on-line for at least two years. A CD-ROM of the conference will include all of the papers, with "received" and "accepted" dates clearly indicated.
ECTOC-1 consisted of six keynote papers and 71 contributed papers and posters on synthetic, mechanistic, and biological chemistry provided by authors from 13 countries in response to an on-line call for papers. The e-mail discussions were subscribed to by 284 individuals. The main conference server and the North American mirror served most of the papers and posters, although 20 were mounted on servers at authors' own sites. During the conference, participants made 69,160 requests for documents, 5,173 relating to article home pages (31,766 requests had been made prior to the conference). The accesses were made by a total of 1,891 unique remote computers from all over the world.
Those are the basics. It was in moving beyond the basics, however, that ECTOC-1 charted fresh territory by employing new techniques designed to provide chemists a unique communications experience. For instance, among the conference's technological highlights:
These highlights are just a few examples of what Rzepa describes as value-added components that ECTOC-1 organizers have tried to provide the conference. "We want electronic conferences to be regarded as something unique in their own right," he says. "They're not really an attempt to replicate a physical conference. They're not really an attempt to replicate a journal. They are something totally new."
Rzepa views the electronic conference as something that can be regarded as a scientific tool of a sort. By delivering not just 3-D search engines but mathematical equations, spectroscopic data, instrumental data in general, and all manner of information that can be instantly applied by a local user, he explains, it would deliver value-added components that scientists wouldn't get in any other forum.
"So we're evolving almost from a conference to a genuine scientific instrument, you might say, which people will use as part of their routine research," Rzepa says.
ECTOC-1 organizers tried to handle the information of the conference in a way that would make it more than just a random collection of disjointed papers being submitted by 70 or so independent authors. This led to the concept of a hyperglossary as a way to organize the conference information into molecular structural types. The idea, Rzepa explains, was to put technology in place that would enable people to make connections between papers - pull out structural themes and so on.
The hyperglossary was something of a self-building database that represented the conference as a whole. Basically, conferees could submit any molecules relevant to discussion of the papers in the form of 2-D or 3-D molecular files. These files then went toward building the hyperglossary. There were seven or eight fields of information that could be supplied for a molecule - some of them simple keywords, some of them structural coordinates, or SMILES strings, a system of notation that provides a unique line formula for a structure. Indeed, in the future, Rzepa says, one can imagine also adding spectral data or similar information. In any event, the information was then organized automatically by a group of programs.
A related service provided with ECTOC-1 was keyword indexing of presentations as well as e-mail discussions. Also, links were provided into other search systems, such as that of the Chemical Abstracts Service. So, for example, if a searcher had a CAS account, it was a simple matter to jump from a conference paper to a CAS search.
Another value-added component of ECTOC-1 was the conference photograph, consisting of 44 photos submitted by authors (not all authors submitted photos). The idea is that, although the electronic conference is not an occasion for people to actually meet face-to-face, it is an enabling mechanism to allow contacts to develop. "We really do believe that this will help people establish person-to-person contacts as a result of the conference," Rzepa explains.
A different type of value-added component is something Rzepa regards as an investigation of what might be considered alternatives to peer review. The idea here is that for the four-week duration of the conference, discussion was carried out by e-mail. For a week or two following the conference, authors were given the opportunity to link the e-mail discussion to the body of their papers for preservation as part of the conference CD-ROM. Readers of the papers on the CD-ROM can thus go immediately from a paper to the discussion that it generated and back again. Comparing the result to a conventional conference, Rzepa notes, "The whole thing is really a paper plus discussion, something that is more valuable than just a paper and just a conference discussion."
Another component of the conference was provision of very detailed access statistics. For example, the types of information available include total access, as well as access by various kinds of documents, which might be the text of a paper or reaction schemes, molecules, and so on. How many times the search index was used and how many times the usage statistics themselves were requested were also gathered automatically. The statistics thus provided a fairly good idea of how people were using the conference.
Rzepa notes that providing feedback as to the kinds of papers other people are browsing through is akin to attending an American Chemical Society conference and suddenly noticing, "'My goodness, that room's a bit full; it must be a very popular talk.' And you pop in and listen."
In sum, the various value-added components offered by ECTOC-1 were an attempt to find out what the chemical community audience wants. Says Rzepa, "We are aware that we don't want to be so technically ambitious that we lose our audience. But I do think that we have to innovate. Ultimately, there are a lot of things that could be done, and we have to find out what our audience wants."
Planning for ECTOC-2 is already under way, although no dates are fixed as yet. ECTOC-2 is likely to be devoted to heterocyclic chemistry, Rzepa says, and will be organized with the Joint Heterocyclic Group, a group sponsored by the American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
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