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Crowdsourcing Chemistry

Maria Thompson on February 5, 2013

In the field of synthetic chemistry, the “elephant in the room” is that chemists spend most of their time just trying to reproduce published reactions.1

This problem has long frustrated chemists, and several groups are making inroads at changing how information gets shared. The latest group, Blog Syn, caught the attention of Nature this week. Blog Syn a collaborative project launched by four synthetic chemists. Their idea is to reproduce published reactions and report their actual yields compared to published yields, as well as any tricks they found to making reactions work. Think of Cooks Illustrated, but for synthetic chemistry.

Chemists have long understood the value of outsourcing, however as we blogged about previously in many fields outsourcing is evolving to crowdsourcing and this is a good example of crowdsourcing in action. There are a few other blogs out there that are doing similar things, such as Totally Synthetic and Organic Prep Daily. These blogs take different formats, some are more conversational and some are more data-driven. They all report on their actual experiences doing synthetic chemistry reactions.

The most established crowdsourcing site where chemists share experiences belongs to ChemSpider, which is owned by the Royal Society of Chemistry. ChemSpider aggregates structural chemistry data from more than 400 sources and makes it freely available. ChemSpider SyntheticPages (CSSP) is a free online publishing service that’s linked to ChemSpider. Like the blogs mentioned above, the goal is to share information generated in reproducing published results. Unlike the blogs, experimental data published here gets linked into a vast network of Open Science information.

Peter Scott, a Professor at University of Warwick who is on the editorial board at CSSP, shares his vision for what makes CSSP so useful2. He alludes to the elephant in the room when he says, “The stuff that’s in CSSP actually works in somebody’s hands, and if you find a prep that doesn’t work, you can comment on it, and you can get additional information from the authors of the SyntheticPage.” This free, interactive format is at the heart of crowdsourcing and Open Science, which have people working collaboratively to advance their field.

Graduate students and postdocs are the main contributors to CSSP, generating information that’s useful to both academic and industry chemists. Authors submit their experiences in a simple format that’s less formal than a journal article, and get single-author credit for doing so by way of a citable DOI. These blogs and CSSP capture information that’s otherwise lost, adding value to the time people spend reproducing published work.

What does the future hold for synthetic chemistry? According to Peter Scott, “Journal articles that have preps in them are essentially dead. It’s not possible to modify them.” He imagines a future in which every published synthetic chemistry reaction is linked to a SyntheticPage that can be modified in the public domain, all for free. What an incredible Open Science Crowdsourcing resource that would be.

  1. K. Sanderson. Bloggers put chemical reactions through the replication mill. Nature, January 21, 2013
  2. Peter Scott Interview, ChemSpider Synthetic Pages.