Professor Baran Enters the BlogosphereMarch 5th, 2013
First they ignore you,
then they laugh at you,
then they fight you,
then they join you,
then everybody wins.
Mahatma Gandhi posted that piece of advice on his blog shortly before his death in 1948, and it still holds true today.
After admitting that chemistry faculty typically roll their eyes at blogs and that he personally doesn’t have time for them, Phil Baran—or, more precisely, the Baran Lab at Scripps—has established the newest chemistry blog on the Internet. Baran and his lab are at the top of the game of organic synthesis, so this is a major development for academic chemistry. Their participation can do nothing but lend legitimacy to an activity that has been robustly and repeatedly poo-pooed by the respected Old School of our field.
The establishment of the Baran Lab’s blog fell out of the ongoing post-publication review of IBX-promoted benzylic oxidation at Blog Syn, a relatively new site that focuses on checking synthetic procedures in the vein of Organic Syntheses. Post-publication peer review is something familiar to the chemical blogopshere. Previous examples include the questioning of the science in the “Arsenic Life” paper, the exposure of duplication by Breslow in the “Space Dinosaur” saga, and the experimental investigation into the oxidation-by-NaH paper in JACS. Blog Syn takes post-publication review of synthetic procedures to the next level by coordinating replication of the procedures among a group of bloggers who compile and compare their results for all to see and discuss.
Last month, Blog Syn decided to examine a method for IBX-promoted benzylic oxidation published as part of Baran’s graduate work in K.C. Nicolaou’s lab. What started as a straightforward effort to test the (questioned) reproducibility of the reaction quickly evolved into a vigorous and thoughtful discussion of both the merits of anonymous bloggers’ questioning peer-reviewed research and of the reaction itself. Baran and the first author of the paper have participated actively in the generation of data and its analysis, and the most recent development appears to be improved mechanistic insight as to how the reaction might work.
Those interested in this specific reaction can check out the discussion for themselves, but all chemists can appreciate the value that blogs and other Web 2.0 venues offer in terms of advancing scientific knowledge and enriching our understanding of chemistry. While blogs may often engage in journalism that is a little rough at the edges, the ease of online publishing has helped to provide open venues for meaningful discussion, to give voice to important ideas, and to democratize power in a field where many grumble that power is overly centralized. What Blog Syn has started is a great service to the field of organic chemistry, and I look forward to the wealth of material that the Baran Lab can bring to the table in its own addition to the blogosphere.
Edit to add: This great post by Rich Apodaca at Depth First places Blog Syn in historical context among similar experiment-based efforts in the chemical blogosphere. The post also offers an interesting analysis of the role that blogger anonymity plays.
Edit: Another (similar) great analysis and comment thread in this post by DrFreddy at C&EN‘s blog.