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Running Into Inspiration Online

How the Internet can help chemists with serendipity

Carolyn Bertozzi

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.Carolyn Bertozzi

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?

Carolyn Bertozzi is a professor at Stanford University, and the editor-in-chief of the open access journal ACS Central Science.

Timeline: A Brief History of the Internet And Chemistry
Paul Bracher


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    Dear Prof Bertozzi, the browsing of TOCs is not a lost art, and neither has the Internet solved everything. Where I fully agree that Twitter and other social media have filled a niche in finding interesting literature, it is basically kind of a majority vote and does not really find you the papers interesting to your research. This has to extend, of course, to #altmetrics, which capture the attention on social media and allows creating TOCs on the fly, as do (good) paper bookmarking services like CiteULike (see Similarly, people developed tools to find science in blog posts, like the no longer existing, continued/forked as Chemical blogspace (see, but consider this code has not been updated in the past 2-3 years). So, creating cross-journal TOCs is a daily habit for many of us still. (BTW, will ACS Central Science fully adopt #altmetrics, as data provider as well as showing #altmetrics on the website?) Returning to the single journal TOCs. Here, RSS feeds have shown to be critical, happy to find a RSS feed for ACS Central Science ( It is good to see that the journal's RSS feed for the ASAP papers contains for each paper the title, authors, the TOC image, and the DOI (possibly, it could also include the abstract and ORCIDs of the authors). Better, it should adopt CMLRSS and include InChIs, MDL molfiles, or SMILES of the chemical compounds discussed in that paper (see this ACS JCIM paper: With proper adoption of CMLRSS, chemists could define substructures and be alerted when papers would be published containing chemicals with that substructure (and it does not have to stop there, as cheminformatically it is trivial to extend this to chemical reactions, or any other chemistry). After all, we don't want to miss the chemistry that sparks our inspiration! I personally keep track of a number of journals via RSS feeds which I aggregate in Feedly, which filled the gap after GoogleReader was closed down. Feedly does not support CMLRSS (unfortunately, but I have other tools for that) and there are a few alternatives. So, I hope the ACS Central Central journal will pick up your challenge and continue to support modern (well, CMLRSS was published in 2004) technologies to support your past workflows! For example, make the link to the ACS Central Science RSS feed more prominent, and write an editorial about how to use it with, for example, Feedly. Egon Maastricht University The Netherlands

    21 Aug 2015

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    Johnson Joseph


    Great article Proff, the internet has been a liberation, without any element of doubt the internet is really becoming the domain and town square for the global village of tomorrow.Indeed Chemist can now smile with this innovation, by subscribing and been connected to various Journal publishing platform, twitter accounts with same faculty of interest, Facebook group's and so on..and endeavour to to active and refuse been a spectator ion..

    23 Aug 2015

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