Rethinking Chemistry Publications - Nature Protocols Makes the Experimental Section a First-Class Citizen

September 10, 2007

Experimental procedures are strange beasts. Loathed (at least temporarily) by those who must prepare them yet central to science, the lowly experimental section is mostly forgotten in the daily struggle of publish or perish. Abstracts, discussions, and conclusions will probably be useless 20 years from now, at least in chemistry. In contrast, the experimental section (and the tables based on them) may well live forever.

It was from this perspective that I was fascinated to learn about Nature Protocols from thescepticalchymist. From the website:

Nature Protocols is an online resource for protocols, including authoritative, peer-reviewed 'Nature Protocols' and an interactive 'Protocols Network'. The two create a dynamic forum for scientists to upload and comment on protocols.

Experimental protocols may be poised to make a comeback in the world of scientific publication. Specifically two chemistry protocols caught my eye:

Unlike most publications in which the experimental section is treated as an afterthought, in Nature Protocols, the experimental section occupies center-stage. Richly annotated and hyperlinked descriptions are complimented by full-color images. Videos have also begun to appear.

Many modern chemistry journals have either abandoned the experimental section altogether or simply downplay it to the point of making it far less useful than it could be. This might have made sense when paper was the primary means of distributing scientific content. With digital storage capacity now routinely measured in terabytes and long-tail scientific economics in full force, this position makes little sense today. The information-delivery platform has changed forever; to what degree will this change the nature of what gets communicated?

image credit: Donohoe and Thomas, Nature Protocols