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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 15, 2010

Those Chemistry Bloggers

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Posted by Derek

After reading this piece on Chembark, I find that I have to help defend the whole chem-blogging enterprise. The latest Analytical Chemistry has an editorial from Royce Murray, on the subject. Unfortunately, it sounds like something written several years ago. He lays out the current model of scientific publishing, and along the way, briefly defends journal impact factors. Then he says that the lay public has traditionally received news of scientific discoveries through reports in magazines and newspapers, but that the finances in those areas has produced a "shrinkage" of the flow of reliable information to the public. And now we come to the part that really worries him:

In the above light, I believe that the current phenomenon of “bloggers” should be of serious concern to scientists. Bloggers are entrepreneurs who sell “news” (more properly, opinion) to mass media: internet, radio, TV, and to some extent print news. In former days, these individuals would be referred to as “freelance writers”, which they still are; the creation of the modern non-word “blogger” does not change the purveyor. An essential change is that these new freelancers, with the megaphone of the internet, can reach a much larger audience of potential clients than was possible in the past (and harness free “information sources”). . .blogging “agencies” are popping up that openly advertise “no formal qualifications are necessary” (as an internet search for “qualifications of bloggers” revealed). Who are the fact-checkers now? There are no reviewers in a formal sense, and writing can be done for any purpose—political, religious, business, etc.—without the constraint of truth.

He goes on to bemoan the lack of a system to qualify and fact-check these "bloggers" - I like the quotation marks, by the way - maybe we should stick those around every word that entered the language less than ten years ago, just to be sure. Now, it would be easy for me to spend a few paragraphs in the same mode as that last sentence, and as Murray accurately notes, there's no editor to stop me. But I won't, because some of his worries are well-founded.

There is indeed a lot of inaccurate nonsense on the internet. And everyone should read what they find online with a thought to who's written it, and why. But everyone should do the same with stuff that's printed on flattened sheets of dead trees, too, even if there are flattened-dead-tree-sheet editors and fact checkers. This is no place to list the stories that have been horribly messed up by even the most respectable of the old media. I'm thinking of a good list right now; any well-informed person should be able to. (If you can't, you're not as well-informed as you think you are). And there is indeed a lot of good science reporting in newspapers and magazines, although we can't ignore the fact that there's an awful lot of lazy and sloppy science reporting, too.

But there's a lot of inaccurate nonsense in the peer-reviewed literature, too. Without editors and reviewers there would surely be more, but too much junk gets through as it is. And if you want to see that stuff flagged, you'll do well to read the chemistry blogs. Murray's editorial doesn't seem to note that the most widely read ones are all written by chemists, not these unqualified people he's worried about. Would it be a cheap shot to point out that some editing and fact-checking might have caught that point before the editorial went out? Or (the other way around) to point out that a quick look through the scientific blogging world would have done just as well?

This, to me, is the real change that blogging has wrought, and I think it's for the better. Now, anyone who has the desire and ability can write about what they really know, about what they do for a living, and find an audience. I am most definitely not making a living as a journalist. My blog is a useful sideline to my real job, which is drug discovery. When I started in this industry, there was no way for me to self-publish my thoughts about it, but now there is, and I couldn't be happier about that.

Murray is suffering, I think, from a mental block, one that comes from his experience of journalism over his lifetime. He (and many other people) seem to feel that reporting is some sort of special profession, and that "real" journalists are the ones who write for the "real" news outlets. And it's a world where everyone knows which ones those are. It was fairly easy to believe that during the last half of the 20th century, but not so easy before it. (Or, as we're seeing, afterwards). All kinds of scruffy, opinionated people used to run newspapers in this country, and now they have internet sites. As do scientists, professors, lawyers, and anyone else with a keyboard and the desire. They're writing "for any purpose", just the way that Murray is worried about. And it's great.

A couple of postscripts: I should point out that I never would have seen Murray's piece at all had it not been for reading the scientific blogs - I hope that gives him some food for thought. He should also check out the above-linked Chembark post, as well as this response from Terra Sigillata (on an ACS site, no less), this one at InSightU, this one at Science 2.0, and this one at Cephalove. There will surely be more. Quite a lot of discussion! And it would be worth wondering how much of an impact this editorial would have had if it had only appeared in the print version of the journal, instead of being picked up by the Blogging Hordes. Could it be that he knows much more about the internet than he seems to, and he's successfully trolled us all?

Comments (41) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


COMMENTS

1. coprolite on October 15, 2010 8:05 AM writes...

I for one am glad someone finally called you out for the claptrap you publish, Henry Luce would be ashamed to defend your freedom. You freely use non-words which are nothing more than amalgams of previous words, "blog" is simply "web" and "log", and I prefer those words the way God intended, separate but equal. I never trust any "news" from the big calculator, I get that from the Lowell Thomas program, thank you very much. Now I must catch a trolley so I can purchase some phonograph needles at the 5 and Dime.

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2. alig on October 15, 2010 8:06 AM writes...

Bloggers take money from real journalists by doing their job for almost nothing. Journalists are around to provide entertainment to the masses (and sometimes push idealogical agendas). Now that these illegals (I mean bloggers) are taking their jobs, the journalists are fuming. Outsourcing to the lowest cost supplier will always happen.

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3. rhodium on October 15, 2010 8:21 AM writes...

I started to read this but its too long. I have get going setting up another oxidation using NaH. I'm making some hexacyclinol analogs.

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4. p on October 15, 2010 8:38 AM writes...

The wider connectivity provided by the internet has alerted me to the fact that the hierarchy of publishing is much more well entrenched than I had thought. I used to think only a few people would trust a report because of the publisher or that only a few would discredit a report for the same reason. I mean that in ranging from general news to scientific literature.

I suppose it's just a lot easier to say, oh, JACS or NY Times, a reliable source, this report must be true! than it is to read the report, check some facts and give it some thought.

Alack!

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5. anon on October 15, 2010 8:52 AM writes...

Isn't Murray's opinion piece exactly like a blog? He's simply sharing his thoughts for his own purposes much like the "bloggers". There is no peer review for opinion pieces. I would argue that he is in fact blogging, butonly in old fashioned media print, he just doesn't realize he is a blogger himself.

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6. Dave L on October 15, 2010 9:15 AM writes...

Sounds like what I learned in my "History of the Middle Ages" class in college. The Catholic church did not want lay-people reading the bible and coming up with alternative theories to the church. They kept the bible in Latin and circulated only amoungst the learned people of the church (the monks, etc.) Humans love control and they fear the free flow of ideas. Trus the main stream media but don't trust the individual. It's all about control.

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7. Hasufin on October 15, 2010 9:35 AM writes...

The greatest frustration, to me, with science reporting in Old Media has long been that the reporters clearly don't understand the science, and resultantly the old media reporting is frequently just plainly false. And, sadly, that seems true of any field. With blogging one can - if choosing carefully - select blogs which are written by people who are knowledgeable or even experts in their topic. And thanks the enormity of the internet, it's even possible to find the knowledgeable individuals who are also articulate.

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8. startup on October 15, 2010 9:56 AM writes...

Aww, c'mon, Derek! Dr. Murray is ca. 75. Of course he prefers traditional news! So what if he prefers this:
http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1174

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9. Wavefunction on October 15, 2010 10:11 AM writes...

I think that Prof. Murray just needs to read a few blogs. I am sure he will amend his opinion if he sees the kind of positive impact that blogs like yours have on the community. I wonder if he also knows about the few instances when blogs have been responsible for exposing mistakes (frauds?) in the literature like the hexacyclinol and NaH oxidation cases.

His concern about truth not being respected on blogs is well-founded, but as you indicated, is objective truth more respected these days even in our most mainstream newspapers? At the very least, these days the best blogs are as committed to objective writing as the best newspaper columns. Plus, science sections in many newspapers have been downright expunged, so blogs are definitely filling up the vacuum. Of course we still have to separate the wheat from the chaff, but then we had to do that even when the first printed books were coming off the press in Europe.

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10. MedInformaticsmD on October 15, 2010 10:18 AM writes...

Bloggers are entrepreneurs who sell news(more properly, opinion) to mass media

Sorry, Mr. Murray, I have never received a penny for my posts on Healthcare Renewal.

I write because I have something to say that I want to get to the public.

I want to ensure at the very least my views get past peer review by those with conflicts of interest in the healthcare IT industry. (I have no such conflicts.)

If you think I have no right to express myself to the public, then start your own damn blog and write about it.

By the way, I think the most appropriate term for bloggers is "journalist."

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11. weirdo on October 15, 2010 10:19 AM writes...

I think the current phenomenon of "Royce Murrays" need to lighten the heck up, go outside, and breath some fresh air. In the past, "Royce Murrays" would be referred to as "old fogeys", which they still are; putting a proper name to the term doesn't change who they are. An essential change is that these new old farts, with the megaphone of the internet, can now reach thousands of scientists, rather than just the three or four other "old fogeys" who read Analytical Chemistry.

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12. Anonymous on October 15, 2010 10:21 AM writes...

Great blog, Derek.
I would rather read the blogs from professional scientists than the news from professional journalists. Some of the hypes in C&EN are rather awful. For example, the piece on "sensors for detecting CO2 upto 100%".

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13. MIMD on October 15, 2010 10:27 AM writes...

#6 Dave L

Emotionally underdeveloped and insecure humans love control and they fear the free flow of ideas

There, fixed that for you.

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14. RM on October 15, 2010 10:53 AM writes...

The thought that someone with no scientific credentials would start a chemistry blog "for the money" elicited a snort from me.

You must have a pretty inflated ego as a chemist to think that they, of all groups, are such a target demographic that a free blog is a sure-fire money maker. I can just hear them now: "Screw the stock market! The real money is in opining on catalytic hydrogenation by organopalladium complexes!"

I bet the most that Derek can hope for from this blog (besides buffing his career prospects as a chemist) is a nice dinner or free beer every now and again from fans.

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15. SIMD on October 15, 2010 11:13 AM writes...

"Emotionally underdeveloped and insecure humans"

That would be all of us. It's the tragedy of the human condition.

Do not mistake that for an argument to quit striving for our better angels.

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16. Sigivald on October 15, 2010 12:17 PM writes...

I find better science "reporting" from blogs than I've ever seen in print media.

And that explicitly includes once-supposedly-high-quality outlets like Scientific American.

It doesn't hurt, at all, that all the rapid-fire communication with no gatekeepers helps catch people who are playing fast and loose with their science on occasion (this means you, Lancet, and you, IPCC).

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17. DLIB on October 15, 2010 12:19 PM writes...

hmmmm....I wonder if the chemists in india think that the chemists in the US should get with the new 21st century realities in chemistry???

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18. Mr. Mister on October 15, 2010 12:39 PM writes...

Douglas Adams had a great piece about the internet back before he died - with a line something to the effect of "Of course we should be skeptical of things we read on the internet, just like we should be skeptical of things people say on the telephone, in restaurants, written in letters to the editor..." You get the idea.

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19. opsomath on October 15, 2010 1:22 PM writes...

DNFTT.

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20. opsomath on October 15, 2010 1:24 PM writes...

Also, I find it really, really entertaining that he had to Google "qualifications of bloggers."

I can suggest a few qualifications, but I don't think it would help our case with Prof. Murray.

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21. weirdo on October 15, 2010 1:33 PM writes...

Try Googling "qualifications of journal editors".

The very first entry (for me) is from Girl.com.au with this nice quote:

What qualifications are needed to work in this field?
None really. Though many might say you need to have a degree in journalism or media or some other type of degree or diploma. It may help you get a foot in the door a little quicker, but real talent to organise, create and to write is what you really need. AND ambition.

Personally, I stopped at "None really". So much for Googling.

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22. Osmium on October 15, 2010 2:28 PM writes...

In some ways, both sides are missing the point.

Chemistry bloggers (the ones I read, anyway, like Derek) do not present new scientific theories that have circumvented peer review. Rather, they present commentary (opnion) on topic of interest to other chemists.

And, I agree about the scientific illiteracy of the "legitimate" press.

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23. MLL on October 15, 2010 2:51 PM writes...

Science journalism isn't what it used to be (or was it ever very compelling?). Here is a link (and the original entry) say volumes about how it is today at the so-called legitimate news outlets!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/28/science-journalism-spoof

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24. Egon Willighagen on October 16, 2010 3:11 AM writes...

What a disgraceful piece of editorial. Thanx for pointing me to it.

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25. John Wilkins on October 16, 2010 8:44 AM writes...

I think that we should give the police powers to stop all you bloggers and check that you have your press papers up to date.

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26. John on October 16, 2010 9:27 AM writes...

I think its actually a fairly complex and important issue.

In the ancient days of my youth, the cost of making hard copies of articles and distributing them, or of broadcasting a television show, put the means to disseminate information into the hands of a small group. This was obviously less democratic than blogging, but those who controlled the means of disseminating information had a financial interest in protecting their brand by ensuring accuracy.

The strengths and weaknesses of the current system are opposite to this. The accountability factor drops to zero when people blog anonomously.

Most of the world is not trained in rigorous thinking, evaluating the reliability of information sources, or in the importance of using primary vs secondary sources. I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone quote incorrect information that they saw on the website of some blogger or special interest group. If its on the web, it must be true.

The fix is not to restrict freedom of expression, but to better train students in school how to evaluate the reliability of different informaiton sources.

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27. Shane Atwell on October 16, 2010 10:30 AM writes...

If Murray bothered to read any blogs, he'd see that the readers (through the comment sections) are the fact-checkers and reviewers. On popular sites they are much better (giving specific counter arguments, providing links, etc.) than some first year grad student that a PI gives a paper to to 'review'. Science funding and scientific publication right now is horribly flawed (witness environmentalist propaganda parading as science), dominated by a buddy system and deserves a much bigger caveat emptor than the blogging world (which doesn't have an official veneer of respectability to hide its crap under).

I'd also like to point out a subtlety in Murray's article that suggests a connection to current attacks on the freedom of speech. In addition to attacking the reliability and credentials of bloggers, he says that bloggers harness 'free' resources to create a 'megaphone' for themselves. All of these elements are being used to push schemes to regulate free speech (e.g. the DISCLOSE act and 'net neutrality' regulations). The 'megaphone' argument is that a person doesn't have freedom of speech if his megaphone drowns out quieter speakers.

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28. k on October 16, 2010 11:41 AM writes...

Perhaps the IT guys at Murray's day had the web filtering software down for maintenance, and he accidentally caught a glimpse of Wikipedia...

Seriously, the majority of consumer journalism related to science and medicine is abysmal, with some exceptions (some of the NPR reporting is quite good), but there are many excellent blogs written by professional scientists and physicians.

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29. MI5 on October 16, 2010 12:36 PM writes...

The problem with his argument is that the peer-reviewed literature is far from perfect. Peer review filters out the worst of the junk, but there's still all kinds of stuff that makes it into print -- and science journalists in the mainstream media seem to assume that anything in the peer-reviewed lit. is gold-standard. I see mainstream-media articles about poor journal papers all the time -- papers that really weren't even worth covering. Science bloggers actually do a far better job than the mainstream media when it comes to highlighting the defects of bad papers/studies in the lit. Sure, as a source of information for the general public science blogs probably are less than ideal -- primarily because most people don't READ science blogs. But science blogs are beginning to serve an important role in the scientific community by critiquing faulty or flawed papers in a way the mainstream media just can't imitate.

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30. davesnyd on October 16, 2010 3:55 PM writes...

I was walking through an airport bookstore a couple months ago and glanced at the magazines and a funny thought occurred to me: someone had taken a bunch of blog posts, printed them out, added some advertising, and then were mailing those magazines all over the country.

Harsh? Maybe. But until the media realizes that there is truth in that statement, they won't be able to solve the problems they face because they can't seven see them.

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31. john on October 16, 2010 4:15 PM writes...

Maybe what he's getting at are statements like these I pulled off a couple of blogs:

"So the fact remains that there is no solid evidence that mammograms save lives."

"Drinking alkaline water will help curb our appetite while simultaneously flushing fats and toxins out of the body."

"You accumulate toxins in your body from the air you breathe, all the artificial drinks you ingest, the chemicals in the water, the processed foods you eat, the lotions, perfumes and deodorants you use, etc. In today’s society, it is nearly impossible not to have a polluted colon."

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32. Anonymous BMS Researcher on October 17, 2010 6:52 AM writes...

Everyone should read anything they find ANYWHERE with a view to who wrote it and why. When I see reports on yet another study by somebody or other, the zeroth question I ask is Who paid for this study?

As a colleague's high-school age son remarked "for every expert there is an equal and opposite expert."

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33. Anonymous BMS Researcher on October 17, 2010 6:58 AM writes...

@john #31: Google "big placebo vs big pharma" sometime...

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34. frequent visitor on October 17, 2010 10:03 AM writes...

Only one word to describe Royce Murray...Hater.

I think he is secretly harboring the financial woes of "real journalists" and the general print media. "Real journalists" in the case of scientific news often rely heavily on the source for information and perspective on the story. "Bloggers", which in the case of most scientific bloggers, have some expertise in a subject area, and more importantly are SCIENTISTS, and can provide a more objective view.

I think Royce doesn't like the internet, and prefers the old days. I never like to say get with the times, so I should rather say, don't hate change.

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35. JJ on October 17, 2010 12:12 PM writes...

"Peer review filters out the worst of the junk, but there's still all kinds of stuff that makes it into print "

No such thing as peer review. More appropriately it should be termed 'review by anonymous person who is also your competitor'. The whole process is rampant with fraud (you can only read about this in blogs).

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36. Great Molecular Crapshoot on October 18, 2010 2:49 AM writes...

It's not just the peer review. Can you imagine a journal editor telling one of the editorial advisory board that the manuscript lacks broad general appeal? If the journals wish to retain their role as gaurdians of scientific good taste they need to allow online commenting on published articles. Did anyone find a way to post commnents on this tedious, self-serving editorial?

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37. John on October 18, 2010 3:56 AM writes...

Its just a tradeoff. Democratization of the media means that our information flow is no longer limited by the editing of those who control the means of disseminating information.

Instead, its limited by our individual ability to sort through the mounttains of uncensored and unedited crap that is on the internet. Anyone who has an opinion can post it, and google treats them all equally.

As someone who searches for information on the internet for a living, I think we'll see the return of a limited role for content editing, probably on a paid service basis. %50 per month for access to more discriminating search engines, or for access to a curated version of the web.

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38. cliffintokyo on October 18, 2010 4:40 AM writes...

I seem to remember that someone proposed a *professionals web* awhile back. We surely need it, to drastically reduce the *noise*.
Otherwise the internet just becomes another break time entertainment medium. *News paper* anyone? An oxymoron if there ever was! Guffaw!! (Love that word, probably picked up during misspent comic-reading childhood!)
The educated *web 2.0* networking public is now quite sophisticated, as comments on Derek's blog repeatedly show. And also too cynical to accept that there are any media writers left who do not have a hidden agenda.....from surreptitiously trashing Obama reforms to getting a bottle of champagne for Christmas from their rag's main sponsor.
It is now more than ever a materialistic money motivated world. How about that, eh, Royce?
Everyone has their price......what's yours?

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39. John on October 18, 2010 10:35 AM writes...

The FTC has actually passed disclosure rules on blogging, due to the large industry of paid bloggers who generate "buzz" around products.

Google is also a big part of the problem. Most subscription-based business development and patent databases allow you to search for multiple words, with the requirement that they be in some reasonable proximity to each other, such as in the same sentence.

Why can't Google provide this? Its against their commercial interests. They sell advertising based on the number of hits. The vast number of misdirected hits arising from the word "insulin" appearing in an article's text and "cancer" showing up in a sidebar or 15 paragraphs later contributes to their revenue.

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40. k on October 18, 2010 8:06 PM writes...

@cliffintokyo

Mukashi mukashi...the internet pre-Tim Berners-Lee Web was "professional" for the most part. (D)ARPANET, run NY BBN, was the precursor to what we know as the internet. (Google Vint Cerf, Jon Postel, et al for some of the more colorful guiding lights that opened the internet to the non-academic world.)

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41. Health Funds on October 20, 2011 2:45 AM writes...

It's just sad that some of the journalists are being affected by this backlash. Some of the bloggers out there are not as good in their field compared to the "real" journalists, and they tend to misinform people as well. Do you think it is time to screen them?

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