Anonymous Science and the Survival of BlogSyn

February 22, 2013

VioletBlogSyn is a recently-launched post-publication review site for synthetic organic procedures. It has been discussed widely on blogs and Twitter, and was recently featured on Nature News.

From the moment the homepage loads, you'll realize this is no Organic Syntheses. However, the most significant difference lies not in what's being revealed, but what remains hidden.

Blogging Experimental Chemistry is so 2005

If BlogSyn merely contained experimental chemistry writeups published directly to the Web, it would be interesting, but hardly unique. Useful Chemistry and the UsefulChem Wiki have been doing this since 2005. Open Notebook Science has since been adopted to varying degrees by many labs around the world - albeit rarely in chemistry. Experimental chemistry continues to be discussed in many personal blogs such as Organic Prep Daily. Even further back in 2005, Dylan Stiles' now defunct Tenderbutton (archive) was one of the first sites to offer a glimpse of organic chemistry's underbelly.

Seen from this perspective, BlogSyn's use of general-purpose blogging software to communicate chemistry results is hardly worth discussing in 2013.

Post-Publication Review: Controversial But Still Unremarkable

Most of the attention BlogSyn has generated comes from its angle: post-publication peer-review.

Each BlogSyn post describes attempts to repeat a single synthetic procedure taken from the peer-reviewed literature. The degree of reproducibility is clearly stated at the beginning of each post. So far two procedures have been rated "Moderatly reproducible" and a third "Difficult to reproduce".

The remainder of each post details attempts to repeat the reaction, complete with spectra and images of work in progress.

Given the limited collective experience in chemistry with specific, widely-available revelations about procedures that don't work as well as described, it's not surprising that concerns about protecting reputations are raised.

Mainstream scientific publishers and other conservative observers will also no doubt look down on BlogSyn's apparent lack of process and refinement.

But all of this is merely science at work: you tell me something is true. I test it and tell others what I found. My "standing" or method of communication matters not one iota - only your confirmation of my claims.

The well-known case of Totally Synthetic's review of the sodium hydride-promoted (auto)oxidation of benzylic alcohols in 2009 was the first post-publication peer review in organic synthesis to get widespread attention. Several other blogs, including Useful Chemistry also posted reviews with experimental details.

The fact that it's at all noteworthy today that decade-old technology is now being used for post-publication peer-review in chemistry says more about the ossification plaguing our mainstream publication system than the legitimacy of the BlogSyn effort.

BlogSyn's most remarkable quality has little to do with post-publication review.

Anonymous Authors: BlogSyn's Radical Departure

To understand what makes BlogSyn worth talking about, look no further than how the authors identify themselves. So far, they are: B.R.S.M (United Kingdom); an anonymous "coworker" of B.R.S.M; See Arr Oh (location: "Somewhere, U.S.A"); Organometallica (IL); and Matt Katcher (NJ).

Only one of BlogSyn's five current contributors uses a name that can be linked to the physical world of institutional affiliations, research groups, grant agencies, and promotions.

Using handles on the internet is a hallowed tradition. Using handles in chemistry is not.

It's ironic to be sure. Few things enrage a chemist like failing to cite his or her work in a paper or talk. Career advancement, the ability to earn a living, and many other goals often depend on as many people knowing about your work as possible. A recent initiative, ORCID, has even gone so far as to create a centralized identity management system for scholarly authors.

Yet here are four out of five authors - possibly more - who would rather not use names linking them to their employers, past publication records, or current research groups.

The Problem with Anonymous Science

The problem with Anonymous Science is that it neutralizes the most powerful motivation science offers for adding new content to the collective corpus: author recognition. Although altruistic motivations do play a role (making the world a better place), there is little evidence to suggest such considerations drive the publication behavior of most chemists and much evidence to the contrary.

If anonymous online behavior were unique to BlogSyn, it might be dismissed. But this is only the latest instance of a longstanding situation.

Back in 2007 I wrote about anonymous science blogging, an idea I continue to find hard to support. Why a chemist would write online under any name but their own continues to interest me.

What is clear is that chemists exhibit a profound shyness online that bears little resemblance to their offline behavior. For example, In the Pipeline and Chemjobber are read by many industrial and academic chemists. Yet even a superficial look at the comments section of these blogs reveals the vast majority of online participants write anonymously or use a pseudonym. Few have blogs themselves.

Given the apparent contradiction, a reasonable question is: why?

Unfortunately, the best I can do is speculate based on limited information. To be clear, I'm considering anonymous online behavior by chemists in general - not the BlogSyn team specifically, a situation I have no direct knowledge of.

Here are some possible reasons for the dichotomy between chemists' online and offline behavior:

  1. Strictly Entertainment. Publications in peer-reviewed journals run by established publishers matter career-wise. Blogs, blog comments, and online excursions don't. They're enjoyable distractions but matter little in the long run.
  2. High-Profile Online Presence Considered Harmful. There's serious science and then there's everything else. Referring back to reason (1), "wasting" time with blogging and other online activities could actually be viewed as harmful to an aspiring chemist's career ambitions. A pseudonym, at least temporarily, obviates the issue.
  3. Backlash from Future Employers. What you say to a colleague at a meeting generally stays at the meeting. What you post online sticks around and can easily be found years later. What you post may offend a future employer, so it's best to keep a low profile. This applies even more so in a tight job market.
  4. Backlash from Current Employers. It's very common for industrial chemists to sign sweeping and highly restrictive intellectual property agreements with employers. These agreements grant ownership of all employee inventions and ideas to the employer, regardless of when they were conceived or developed. Interpretation may extend to online publication, opening a legal can of worms. In case it's not obvious - attempting to circumvent such agreements by posting anonymously is one of the worst ideas any chemist can have.
  5. General Awkwardness. Chemistry, as has often been said, is a small world. Having run a blog for over seven years now under my own name, it continues to be awkward to meet strangers who know far more about me than I do about them. At times I've been critical in my posts and I sometimes worry what effect this might have offline. I doubt I'm unique in these respects.

Although it may not be obvious, the motivation for online anonymity in chemistry matters - a lot. Chemists continue to publish using the traditional peer-reviewed system, under their real names, because the potential reward is obvious: career advancement. Over time, a well-tended publication record can mean the difference between thriving and suffering.

Unless a new motivation of equal or greater value than recognition linked to a legal name and the rewards that come with that can be found, BlogSyn's acceptance of mostly anonymous reviews will be the cause of its gradual abandonment.

Outlook

BlogSyn is innovating the exchange of ideas in chemistry, but not for the reasons many observers have pointed to. The anonymity of BlogSyn's authors and most of its participants stands in stark contrast to the credit-seeking behavior chemists display offline. Viewed more broadly, this behavior is part of a consistent, longstanding pattern.

None of the explanations offered here seem particularly compelling, which suggests other factors may be at work. Perhaps every chemist who posts online anonymously has a different, deeply personal reason for doing so.

Regardless of explanation, science does not require personal identification of its practitioners. Nothing about the anonymity of BlogSyn's authors should matter in evaluating the quality or utility of its content.

However, if BlogSyn is to survive its initial flurry of curiosity, developing into a service that matters to chemists, it needs to offer contributors a compelling answer to the simple question: "What's in it for me?"