ChemBark as a Chemical News Medium

ChemBark is many things. It is part serious. It is part silly. It is a place people come to read about important issues in our field. It is a place people come to make jokes and have fun. Much like a newspaper has a front page and a comics section, ChemBark has posts that lie on different levels of seriousness. The unifying theme is that they all have something to do with chemistry.

Clearly, bona fide chemistry news falls within the purview of this blog, and the fact that some posts contain original reporting is one of the biggest reasons people come to this site. The content of the blog routinely extends beyond news stories and into commentary, especially in areas like the political, cultural, ethical, and managerial aspects of research in chemistry. When discussing these topics, I steer clear of discussing personal information that is irrelevant or of little relevance to any larger story. I know a lot of you know or want to know gossip about things like chemists’ places of residence, romantic affairs, and other sensitive personal business. I don’t discuss such information here.

I enjoy writing posts, and part of this enjoyment comes from being able to use the blog to draw attention to issues that I think are interesting and merit discussion. I have limited time to devote to the site, so I generally focus on issues and stories that have been overlooked by the more traditional media. There is no need for me to post on things that are already covered somewhere else. That’s why there aren’t many reviews of research papers here. If you want to read about research, you can open JACS or Angewandte and read the original reports. For coverage of most of the significant events in the world of chemistry, you can crack open your weekly copy of C&EN.

Of course, publications like C&EN and Chemistry World usually limit themselves to stories that portray our field in a positive light. Unfortunately, not all of the aspects of research in chemistry are positive. There will always be matters of scientific misconduct, ethical dilemmas, dirty politics, misappropriated funds, and petty bickering. These sorts of issues are pervasive in our community and we should not feel ashamed to learn about them and discuss them. Part of the job of the media is to serve as a watchdog. Despicable acts like scientific misconduct merit coverage and significant follow-up attention. It is sad that the printed media in our field either don’t share this view or don’t have the time, money, space, or inclination to get to the bottom of things. It is ridiculous to think that ChemBark is contributing to a problem or doing more harm than good when it reports a negative or provocative story.  No scientist should feel that ignorance is bliss or that discussing interesting news is counterproductive.

While many people harp on the controversial issues discussed on this site, don’t forget that there are plenty of positive posts on ChemBark, too.

ChemBark as a Venue for Analysis and Discussion

It is one thing for me to post news or analysis, but unlike with traditional media, on a blog, all readers have the chance to respond and start a discussion. ChemBark is not just a publication, it’s a community.

As Josh Finkelstein, a senior editor at Nature, said in an old Nature Chemistry Podcast, “Chemists are generally quite social animals.” The problem is that for many important “hot button” issues, the only places you can find these discussions are around water coolers or over lunch tables—venues that are closed to the public. Why not discuss these issues on a bigger scale? That’s part of what ChemBark is about: being a water cooler for everyone who’s interested in discussing important chemical news. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a big department or a lone alchemist—anyone can participate.

I have accepted the fact that there will be bumps in the road as I try to steer ChemBark to becoming a respectable place for discussion about technical and cultural issues in chemistry. Due to the lack of transparency in our field and the concentration of power in a small elite class, we are fighting a massive activation barrier in reaching that goal. We live under a cloud of fear. Students fear their advisors. Professors fear their colleagues. Authors fear their reviewers. Reviewers fear revenge. People don’t want to run the risk of being honest and upsetting someone because they think it will come back to bite them…and they might be right. Long gone are the days when chemists would intellectually spar over fascinating research with little regard for anything but the truth. Grizzled physical organic chemists still sing songs of the epic battles over nonclassical carbocations (the followers of Winstein vs. the followers of Brown). Although tempers often flared and feelings were often hurt, there is no question that these debates pushed the field to improve its experiments and solve the problem.

But, like I said, those days are gone. Now, if we want our culture to change, the progress will have to be slow and steady. If ChemBark falls too far outside of the current cultural norms, people will just ignore it. I manage ChemBark accordingly. First, I favor depth in coverage as opposed to breadth. Only a small percentage of the posts on ChemBark are “hot button” topics. If I came out with guns blazing against every problem and injustice in the world of chemistry, this site would be viewed as a joke. Second, while I would like for everyone to feel safe in signing their names to their comments, I realize that this is going to take some time. While I comment using my real name, I allow anonymous comments because not granting anonymity would stifle any sort of meaningful discussion. The trade off, of course, is that there’s an element of hypocrisy in how ChemBark seeks to be an “open forum” but allows people to hide behind anonymous screen names. Last, I realize that I’m a lowly postdoc with zero clout or power in our field. The “Paul Bracher” brand name is worth nothing, and correspondingly, offers this blog nothing. The only way that I can build credibility for this site is to manage it responsibly by being fair and addressing issues in a professional manner—especially the controversial ones.

One philosophical stand that I’ve made is to allow nearly complete freedom of speech in the comments. The comments are a big part of this site and we’ve already seen how great comments can be informative and thought provoking. This is exactly the reason that the comments exist. As I agree with Potter Stewart that censorship “is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime,” the only comments I delete are spam and those that stray so recklessly deep into personal ground that the information is both offensive and worthless. I welcome you to identify comments that you think should be deleted.

A consequence of all this leeway is that comments will sometimes venture into areas that hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes, commenters crack hurtful jokes. Sometimes, completely legitimate comments hit a little “too close to home.” I am resigned to the fact that providing an open forum will inevitably mean that “good” people will occasionally be hit with shrapnel, but getting mad at me for these comments is like getting mad at your department’s administration for funding social hours and parties. After all, people come to these events and discuss rumors and crack insulting jokes. At the same time, plenty of people participate in intelligent, thought-provoking conversations. The comments that rub you the wrong way are the price we pay for all of the “good things” that the freedom of commentary brings.

What you should remember is that—ChemBark or no ChemBark—these conversations are still taking place behind closed doors. I personally think the “open” system afforded by blogs is better than the “closed” system that is currently in operation. First, the closed system is unfair to the individuals being discussed because not only can they not defend themselves, they have no idea they are even a subject of discussion. On ChemBark, everyone has access to the same information and can either choose to join the discussion or just observe. The current system affords no such courtesy. Second, the current system is inefficient. With a select few individuals holding these discussions, there are fewer brains actively analyzing what is going on. When you open the discussion to the entire community, everyone can raise points and learn from it.

One aspect of the comments that probably goes overlooked is that I am one of the biggest losers as far as allowing anonymous commenting is concerned. First, I receive the “blame” for many of these anonymous comments because I am the one who provides the open forum. Second, many (most?) anonymous attacks on this blog are leveled at me. Some commenters have attacked me using multiple user names to make it seem that the dissatisfaction is widespread. Third, people comment anonymously to mask perceived conflicts of interest. For instance, by their IP addresses, I know that some of the attacks leveled at me come from friends and colleagues of people discussed in news stories. If you knew that at the time, you would probably reduce the weight of their opinion relative to an unbiased casual observer. Still, I allow the comments to stay and don’t “out” the people who left them. While I don’t dish out anonymous vitriol, I take more of it than anyone.

Getting back to the “hot button” issues discussed on ChemBark, do we have to discuss these topics? The simple answer is “yes.” A lot of Web 2.0 efforts that should enjoy success are initially doomed for failure because they are too restrictive. There is already a resistance in our field, for whatever reason, to embracing Web 2.0 technology. Since we are already attracting a small number of people, it would be stupid to further discourage participation by requiring registration, banning anonymous comments, narrowing the scope to ridiculously specific subsets of our field, or attempting to cater to too many people by barring discussion of interesting but provocative issues.

I think it’s also fair to say that most of the opinions expressed on ChemBark regarding provocative issues are actually representative of more widely-held opinions in our field. For instance, I think the outrage expressed in the blogosphere over the Sames-Sezen situation mirrored that in the world of research. I think it is also clear that views in the blogosphere have shaped, to a degree, some of the stories run in C&EN, Chemistry World, Science, and Nature. Aside from the SSS, opinions expressed in the blogosphere regarding the 2007 Nobel Prize were reported in the print edition of Nature. I don’t think the editors would have done this if our views were not representative of a larger population of chemists.

I’d like to think that ChemBark is doing some good things and that it is not simply a “time sink” blog, as one commenter put it. I am pleasantly surprised that the site receives a lot of Google traffic for technical questions, like the general procedure for HATU coupling. There is clearly an audience for technical information in chemical blogspace. I am also encouraged that people refer visitors to ChemBark’s discussions of cultural issues in our field, like the order of authors on papers or how to improve peer review. Where else can you find analyses of these issues that are open and accessible to all who wish to voice their opinion? And as far as humor is concerned, I would hope that people appreciate and enjoy the posts and comments on ChemBark that are made in jest. You guys crack me up, and I thank you for it.

Risk Management

A question that is occasionally raised in comments is whether ChemBark could damage my prospects for a career in chemistry. It is something I have considered at great length, and I have arrived at the unsurprising conclusion that running this blog has the potential to both help and hurt me. ChemBark is a genuine reflection of my personality because I have elected to run the site in as honest and straightforward a manner as possible. I use my real name, strive for 100% factual accuracy, and openly share my personal opinions and the reasons behind them. The downside of sharing all of this information is that some people will be turned off by my personality and opinions. For example, I get the distinct impression that some of you do not appreciate my frankness and willingness to explore politically incorrect questions. I suppose this could hurt my chances of landing a job in some places, but I’d rather miss out on these jobs than be hired and have to pretend that I’m someone I’m not.

On the flip side, there is also the small prospect that this blog could end up helping my career. On the off chance that potential employers stumble upon ChemBark, I would hope to come across as reasonably intelligent, creative, logical, and someone who loves chemistry, loves teaching, and cares about the managerial aspects of research (advising, administration, ethics, etc.). It should also be noted that ChemBark and its predecessor have damn good track records of finding interesting stories and getting the facts right. At times, we may have even outclassed the coverage of C&EN, Science, Nature, and the New York Times. The commentary on ChemBark, while opinionated, is kept as clinical as possible. I don’t swear. I don’t launch personal or ad hominem attacks. I take the time to substantiate my opinions with facts and reason, and I provide an open forum for public dissent should anyone wish to disagree. What news medium publishes every single piece of correspondence the editors receive, including attacks against them which are untrue and personally insulting?

Concluding Remarks

In theory, academia exists to enhance our understanding of the world. Critical examination and honesty should take precedence over personal advancement, popularity, pride, and political correctness. We should not fear starting discussions about interesting news, ideas, and theories simply because the scrutiny may stray into areas where people will have their ideas challenged or feelings hurt. Sadly, in the current politicized climate of chemical research, many chemists are resigned to an existence where speaking critically and honestly is limited to the shadows cast by privacy and anonymity. Such a system is shamefully inefficient, and as scientists, we should seek alternatives that allow us to embrace our analytical roots and thoughtfully examine our lives.

Reaching that goal is a big part of what ChemBark is all about.

Happy reading,
Paul