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Science & Technology

January 29, 2007
Volume 85, Number 05
p. 41


Bloggers Anonymous

Personal-journal-style websites usher in a new age of chemical communication

Bethany Halford

HI, MY NAME IS BETH, and I'm a blogoholic.

My visits to the blogosphere started innocently enough. Occasional trips to blogs about celebrity gossip and shoes gave me a little pick-me-up during a long day at my keyboard. Then, about nine months ago, I discovered that there are chemists out in the blogosphere, documenting the chemical world with websites that run the gamut from scholarly to silly, sometimes simultaneously.

Colin Garvie
Bloggers can work in their pajamas.

In case you're not familiar with blogs, they're regularly updated online journals where readers can comment on whatever the blogger has posted. "They engage the writer and reader in an open conversation and are shifting the Internet paradigm as we know it," gushes Technorati, a search engine that currently tracks over 63 million blogs, of which 100 or so are dedicated to chemistry.

"The blogging platform is like giving everyone their own printing press," remarks veteran chemistry blogger Derek Lowe. Since 2002, Lowe has been using his "In the Pipeline" blog as a personal Op-Ed page, available to anyone with an Internet connection. His 5,000 or so daily readers can weigh in on what's happening in the pharmaceutical industry or add their own reminiscences to one of Lowe's occasional tales from the bench.

But you don't have to be as cerebral as Lowe to carve out a spot in the blogosphere. Paul H. Docherty's "Totally Synthetic" blog, for example, takes a nuts-and-bolts approach, deconstructing the latest hot papers on natural product syntheses. At the other end of the spectrum, Dylan Stiles became a chemistry-blogging legend by documenting life as a graduate student on his now-defunct "Tenderbutton" blog.

With such rich reading material, you can see why my visits to the blogosphere have gone from a recreational pastime to a full-blown habit. And I'm not alone. Plenty of others are reading too, even the chemical crème de la crème.

Totally Synthetic has become so popular with synthetic organic chemists that Docherty, who's still in graduate school, is often approached by well-known researchers when he attends chemistry meetings. "It's a little weird," he says of the attention. Both Lowe and Stiles now write columns for Chemistry World, the Royal Society of Chemistry's monthly magazine.

I worry. Will a blogger put me out of work one day? I find a little consolation in the fact that most chemistry bloggers seem to have no interest in moving into writing full-time. Also, many write their blogs anonymously.

I've been thinking a lot about the facile anonymity the Internet provides. It strikes me as both troubling and liberating, particularly when you consider how people who comment—many of whom prefer to remain anonymous—add value to a blog's content. Who knows what muckrakers will uncover or what gossip will be divulged when they don't have to be accountable for it?

"What you say carries more weight when you put your name behind it," says Paul Bracher, who runs the rabble-rousing "ChemBark" blog. "It's unfair to talk about others without letting people know where you come from, especially if you're going to be critical about other people's work." Mitch Andre Garcia, of "Chemical Forums", says, "Using my real name keeps me more honest, reflective, and judicious with what I write."

The flip side, of course, is that the anonymity fosters more open discussions. It gives a voice to people who might otherwise hold their tongues for fear of expressing an unpopular opinion. The comments responding to "Confessions of a Chauvinist," a recent posting on "The Chem Blog," may shed more light on the attitudes that are holding back women in chemistry than anything C&EN has written in recent memory.

Personally, I look forward to seeing more chemistry blogs, anonymous or otherwise. Although you might expect a blog addict to say that, my mind reels from the opportunities they provide. They connect chemists not only to one another but also to the rest of the world.

Kyle Finchsigmate, who writes "The Chem Blog," puts it best: "At the very core of science, something which it simply could never function without is the ability to exchange information. Today, what with the Internet, information needn't just be transferred faster (which everyone seems to think is the only blessing it has bestowed upon us), but it can be transferred in whole new ways, ways that were simply unimaginable 30 years ago," he says.

"As silly as it sounds, I'm just so happy to be a part of that transformation," Finchsigmate continues. "It just makes me ... proud. It's the same reason I do science, I guess. It's the new frontier, and I want to see how far I can push this thing until it does something that I never even expected it to do."

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

Chemical & Engineering News
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