Why Most Chemists (Still) Don't Use RSS and Why You Should Care

March 30, 2010

Over the last few years, I've been conducting an informal survey of the working bench chemists I know on the subject of RSS/Atom Feeds and Feed Readers. I started taking this question seriously after several discussions in which I described what I was doing with Metamolecular. When I brought up the subject of feeds, I could tell by the blank stares that I was talking about something foreign.

So I decided to start asking the question of every bench chemist I knew. My non-scientific, anecdotal results based on a very small n: fewer than 20% of working chemists have even heard of RSS or Atom Feeds and a somewhat smaller number than that use a feed reader regularly.

This doesn't appear to be a generational thing. Both young chemists and old alike seem to be unaware of syndication technology or what it can do for them.

My survey hasn't included graduate students so far, but indications from the university librarians I've talked to suggest that even at this level, awareness of one of the Web's most useful technologies remains well below where it might be expected.

Say What?

The very livelihood of every chemist literally depends on access to the newest information. You might think that a tool that makes it almost effortless to stay on top of more journals than you can shake a cursor at would be not just well-known, but well-used.

What's going on here?

Let's Do the Time Warp

There are likely a number of factors at play here. In no particular order, here are some ideas based on fact, intuition, and pure speculation:

  • Well-Known Journals Don't Publish Feeds or Make Them Visible One of organic chemistry's most widely-read journals is Tetrahedron Letters. Browse on over there if you haven't already. The first thing you may notice is that there's no feed icon in your address bar. The second thing you may notice is the apparent lack of a new articles feed icon or link anywhere on the page. This site (and its cousins Tetrahedron and Tetrahedron Asymmetry have other important usability issues, but the lack of a clear, obvious feed link is probably the biggest. Need another example? How about Synlett? (By the way, that orange feed icon links to a decidedly corporate Thieme newsfeed. You'll need to dive down into something called 'e-First' to get to the feed.) Although publishers such as ACS do an excellent job of publishing and promoting their feeds, to the extent that other publishers don't, syndication will be a tool of limited utility for staying up-to-date with chemistry journals.
  • SciFinder The chemical information tool of choice in many organizations (indeed, in many cases the only tool) is SciFinder. Chemists who want to follow journal content may create a 'Keep me Posted' item to do so, and for them this may be all they really need.
  • Little Dynamic Research-Oriented Content Beyond Journals Chemical Blogspace hosts content from chemistry-oriented blogs. Both ChemSpider and Chempedia offer feeds for newly-deposited molecules (and Chempedia further offers the ability to follow your own molecules or those of someone else). Relatively few of the many free chemistry databases now available offer similar capabilities.
  • Nobody Else Does It Metcalfe's law? Catch-22?

Why It Matters

Syndication is the proverbial canary in the coalmine when it comes to the modern Web. Because so many aspects of the modern Web flow from the simple idea that both people and machines can be updated when new things happen to a Web resource, underuse of syndication says a lot about where a community is with respect to its adoption of the Web.

Reality Check

Am I way off base? Is syndication actually used a lot more than I've been able to gather? I'd like to hear about your experiences with how syndication is (or isn't) being used in chemistry. Feel free to post a comment or drop me a line.