The New Water Cooler

Computer Sketch. iStockphoto.

Spotted: chemists lurking on social networking sites. More and more chemists rely on RSS feeds and online blogs to stay up-to-date in their field. iStockphoto.

Internet-savvy chemists have found ways to stay informed and communicate with each other by embracing the latest generation of social Web sites. These tools allow them to work more efficiently and maintain closer ties to their colleagues.

“Most chemists use the Web primarily as a source of information, usually with Google as the interface,” says Andrew Lang, a professor at Oral Roberts University who built a video game that helps organic chemistry students understand NMR spectra. “With very little effort, they could join growing scientific and education communities that are using the Web to both create and pass on knowledge.”

Until recently, skimming the table of contents in several dozen journals was the most efficient way to keep current in the world of chemical research. Now keen readers can take advantage of RSS (really simple syndication) services to monitor their favorite publications. The moment a new paper appears on a journal Web site— sometimes months before it is printed— the title and abstract will appear in an online announcement system called an RSS feed. These services are free and deliver all of your news to the same place. Most of them keep track of what has already been looked at, allowing the reader to revisit articles of interest. If an article is particularly interesting, RSS readers make it easy to share that information with colleagues.

“A diversity of electronic sources means that chemists can choose the admixture that suits them, and it is important to make information available and accessible across a variety of such platforms," says Paul S. Weiss, Kavli Chair in NanoSystems Sciences at UCLA and editorin- chief of the journal ACS Nano.

Another Web application, Twitter, is a social networking site that gives users 140 characters to share their thoughts. On the surface this application may seem to have little connection to chemistry, but a number of influential chemists are using it to broadcast concise messages to anyone who will listen. It acts as a sort of public address system for the chemical community. The editors of Nature Chemistry use their Twitter account to call attention to things that chemists may find amusing—from lighthearted gossip items to announcements about their next issue. At the time of this writing roughly 1,200 chemists subscribe to those broadcasts. Meanwhile, the American Chemical Society press room uses it to share articles about chemistry as they appear in top newspapers and magazines. Unlike an RSS feed, Twitter is a two-way form of communication. Direct messages can be sent to anyone who has a Twitter account, and that person can then respond.