Stack Overflow - Technical Discussion Forums and Modern Chemistry

September 16, 2008

Quick, name the most popular online technical forum for chemistry. Having a hard time coming up with an answer? You're not alone. Despite a few attempts, there is no widely-recognized place to go online to exchange technical information in chemistry.

Some Examples

If you look hard, you can find chemically-oriented forums scattered around the Web. For example:

  • Chemical Forums Perhaps the best-known discussion board for chemistry. From what I can gather, most of the posts and responses are from students looking for help on their assignments. While there's certainly a place for this, it leaves working chemists grappling with tough technical questions without a place to go (other than a limited circle of personal contacts).
  • ChemSpider Forum Recently introduced by the ChemSpider team, this forum is geared mainly toward uses of the ChemSpider Web service.
  • ChemAxon Technical Support Forum Although specific to ChemAxon's product line, this forum does contain some useful, generally-applicable information in chemical informatics.
  • CHEMINF-L This email list is one of the oldest and most popular discussion forums for chemical informatics (geared toward both software and library informatics). While ubiquitous, email suffers from many limitations that act to restrict the utility of this service. For example, just finding the link to the archives page is a major undertaking.
  • Computation Chemistry List (CCL) Another email list with a long history - this time dating back to 1991. Although the website is much easier to find than CHEMINF-L, this service suffers from most of the other limitations of email. For example, there's no way to monitor "active" discussions, no easy way to post images, and no way to avoid stuffing your email inbox with lots of messages you may have no time to read or interest in reading.

You might think the ACS would be all over this. They aren't. Despite much fanfare about its new website, the ACS offers very little in the way of bringing working chemists together online. The much-praised JACS Beta offers nothing in the way of dynamic user-generated content. The outdated model of "Publisher decides what Reader sees", it appears, is alive and well at ACS.

By way of Joel Spolsky, I ran across a new kind of online forum called Stack Overflow. Stack overflow is a technical discussion forum for programmers. What makes Stack Overflow different is that it attempts to do what existing discussion forums do badly: direct you to the highest-quality, most active, and most interesting discussions. In other words, to tell you something important that you might not already know, while filtering out junk.

To be sure, chemistry has it's own set of peculiar problems to deal with when it comes to the exchange of information in public forums. What works with a programmer's discussion forum might not work with chemistry.

You might look at this as a reason to assume the idea could never work in chemistry.

Or you could look at it as an opportunity to fix something that's broken.