Chemistry Has a Long Tail - Deal With It

June 01, 2010

One of the bits of feedback I've received during the development of Chemvoice is to break the site's content down into categories. Fair enough, but what exactly should these categories be and how many of them? Chemistry is the central science, and nowhere is that more apparent than in its long tail.

For the unfamiliar, Chemvoice is a social chemistry news service. The idea is simple: let readers themselves decide what's newsworthy and give them simple tools to make their opinions visible to others.

When you submit a story to Chemvoice, you currently have the option to assign one or more tags to it. A tag is a word or phrase used to group related stories together. For example, we can find all Chemvoice stories dealing with NMR. The tags used with a particular article are visible in the article detail view, as in the article dealing with small magnets for portable nmr spectrometers.

Placing the decision of how to tag stories into the hands of the story's submitter is consistent with our goal for Chemvoice in general: to provide a news platform in which chemists themselves are in charge. But any given story can deal with multiple topics in chemistry. A synthetic methodology study, for example, can range from organic synthesis to nmr to catalysis to polymer structure to natural product synthesis. Each chemist reading a story would submit a set of tags reflecting their own interests and experiences. Some tags would be used by most chemists, but many would be unique to a given chemist.

For a high-level overview, a listing of all Chemvoice tags is available. And this is where things get interesting. Chemvoice currently lists 64 articles and 118 tags. We're already starting to see fine-grained differentiation - for example arenes and aromaticity.

Maybe the abundance of tags is a problem, or maybe not - I'm really not sure. But I do know there are some simple ways to prevent mistakes when using tags. StackOverflow, for example, uses a very clever system in which tags are autocompleted as you type them. This, combined with the ability for users to re-tag articles may offer all that's needed to create a very useful collection of tagged chemistry new items.

A good tagging system offers a number of benefits to readers. For example, in the near future, we'll be offering the ability to subscribe to the feed of a particular tag, allowing new stories on that topic to come to you through a feed reader. For another example, consider the numerous creative visualizations of tags that have been developed over the years.

As Chemvoice gets used (hopefully), we'll be re-examining its tagging system for ways to improve it. If you have ideas, please don't hesitate to drop us a line, leave a comment here, or use the feedback form.