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.

Although several thousand chemists have adopted Twitter and RSS feeds, many are simply too swamped with e-mail to try these new tools, and for many, old habits are hard to change. “I bet if you called a top chemistry department and asked to speak to all of the faculty one by one, less than 10% would use RSS, and much fewer than that would use Twitter,” says Stuart Cantrill, the chief editor of Nature Chemistry. “Perhaps I'm a dinosaur, but I think change will be slow.”

As the budgets of newspapers and science magazines have plummeted, online news sites and blogs have stepped in to fill the content void. A good one can function as a newspaper, an online journal club, or a never-ending review article. Some are run by professional editors, and others are written by graduate students. Chemical & Engineering News staff write a blog that covers topics ranging from tchotchkes for chemists to profiles of exceptionally frugal conference attendees. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Paul Doherty’s blog, Totally Synthetic, contains highly technical analysis of recent publications from organic chemistry journals.

In addition to offering hard news, many of these technologies—particularly social networking sites—are gradually becoming an important hub for chemists. LinkedIn and the American Chemical Society Network both allow anyone to post their résumé and gather endorsements from colleagues and former employers. They are serious Web sites meant for job seekers, employers, and professionals who are interested in making business connections. By comparison, Facebook is a wild playground. Like Twitter, Facebook encourages its users to broadcast concise status updates to all their “friends.” Chemists are more likely to use this service for less official business—such as announcing that they are headed to a conference or trying to find someone to share the cost of a hotel room.

In the coming years we may witness the emergence of many more Web sites that are meant to assist and inform chemists, but only time will tell how quickly these technologies are adopted by the community at large. “Nothing will change overnight. Perhaps as the younger generation of scientists progress through the ranks and become established academics, their Web 2.0 habits will survive the transition,” Cantrill says.

Aaron Rowe is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for Wired, Tactical Response, Chemical & Engineering News, and the Discover Web site.