I Dare You: Ask Your Toughest Experimental Chemistry Question on Chempedia Lab

February 06, 2010

Nature News is running a story on Matthew Todd and his initiative to develop a more practical treatment for Schistosomiasis by thinking different:

"My funded project is intended to be the kernel, to which anyone can add," Todd says. He hopes that the project will become a successful example of open-source science, and open-source 'wet lab' chemistry in particular, a concept that has been slow to take off.

Call me an optimist, but the problems with getting something like this to work will have less to do with a scarcity of volunteer-minded chemists and more to do with finding them around the world and connecting them to each other.

Chempedia Lab is a service that might have a role to play. It's a question and answer site dedicated to experimental chemistry. Ask a question and get a peer-reviewed answer. No inflated bureaucracy, no lengthy review process, no unaffordable subscriptions, no conflicts of interest, no nagging questions about re-use, no counterproductive rewards system. Just you, your peers, and the information - the way science is supposed to work.

Maybe you're thinking that something like this can't possibly work. If so, I'll leave you with a simple challenge - do the experiment yourself. Ask the toughest question you can think of and see how long it takes to get either exactly the answer you were looking for, or an answer that puts you on the right track. Then ask yourself how you would have answered the same question without Chempedia Lab.

Although Chempedia Lab may not be the best platform, one thing is clear - open science has no chance in the context of traditional scientific communication. That system is simply too cost-ineffective, both in terms of money and time.

My guess is that for every Matthew Todd there are at least a hundred others who would like to start the same kind of initiative, but who feel they lack the funding, the lab space, the staff, or some other critical resource. Thinking different about everything in the way we do chemistry - from who does the research, to where it gets done, to the medium of collaboration - is the key.