How the Internet can help chemists with serendipity
Chemists of a certain age will recognize this scene: a late night in the library, heavy volumes of Chemical Abstracts splayed over a table, eyes straining to read the tiny typeset for that reference that might save your research project. You pray that once you find it, the volume will be on the correct shelf, and that the page in question hasn’t been ripped out by a callous colleague. And then you hope that the copy machine has ink and paper and isn’t jammed beyond repair. That was literature research before the Internet.
Now the universe of knowledge is a few keystrokes and mere seconds away; finding information that might transform your research is no longer a brute-force war of attrition, but more akin to a heat-seeking missile.
But what of those pearls of chemistry we inadvertently tripped over during the late-night slogs through library stacks? Every chemist back then had a story of that image, structure, or article title that somehow caught the eye, on its face unrelated to the subject at hand, but nonetheless it ignited a new idea.
Can the Internet offer an alternative muse? I say yes, in the form of social media. The random walk of long nights in the library may be replaced by our Twitter feeds, constantly delivering serendipitous encounters with science outside of our targeted literature searches. For example, a few years back, my lab was grappling with the instability of a reagent that we wanted to study in water. A chance online encounter with a supramolecular chemistry paper spawned an idea for capturing the unstable compound as a cyclodextrin complex. No targeted search would have gotten us there.
Also, open access publishing can bring new ideas to citizens across disciplinary, geographical, and economic divides. By lowering the barrier of access to the scientific literature, more people have the opportunity to bump into something that sparks inspiration.
Collectively, the Internet invites the globe, unencumbered by copy-machine malfunctions, to browse at lightning speed. With all that power, the question is, how do we as chemists and publishers wield the Internet to maximize the potential?