To blog or to publish. That is the question.

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Scientists write blogs for a variety of reasons. But these do probably not include getting tenure (or grants). For that one has to publish. And I will argue here that a blog is not currently accepted as a scientific publication (for more discussion on this point, see this article by Maureen Pennock and Richard Davis). For chemists, publication means in a relatively small number of high-impact journals. Anything more than five articles a year in such journals, and your tenure is (probably) secure (if not your funding).

Can one do both? Post a blog item, and then publish a follow-up in a high-impact journal? Well, yes and no.

I had better explain. A blog post is more often then not catalysed by reading an article, viewing another blog, or discussing something with a colleague. One posts in the hope of getting some feedback, from which one’s ideas might mature, develop, or indeed collapse! Scientists have long done this of course, albeit with a colleague down the corridor, at conferences or seminars. The ideas thus cast forth may also of course also get stolen, and so these traditional mechanisms for floating ideas are often very short on detail. Sometimes, returning to the idea of blogs, one post can lead to another, and the nature of the blog means the ideas can evolve, mutate very rapidly. Eventually, one might wish to take a good overview of all the various efforts. At this point, one is now considering publishing a journal article, since currently at least, the longevity of a journal is considered longer than that of a blog (see this post here for more ruminations on that theme). There are other good reasons for then choosing a journal rather than one’s blog. The QA (quality assurance) necessary to get an article accepted in a good journal is, let’s face it, rather greater than that of a blog (although to be fair, it is only motivation that limits the quality of the latter). Apart from adding all those control experiments/calculations that may be missing from the blog, one also must be far more fastidious in citing the literature correctly.

I do speak from (thus far one) experience. The story starts here, this being the initial post on a story that broke on Steve Bachrach’s blog about a compound with a potentially pentavalent carbon; Steve’s own post was based on an original article on the theme. Several more blog posts followed as the logical theme gradually developed. I eventually decided that telling how this set of logical connections came about was almost as interesting as the specific molecules it covered. The story had also evolved from discussing the element Astatine to speculating about the rare gas Helium, a somewhat less than obvious connection path (and how to discover connections between disparate and apparently unconnected concepts is a different story). Where should the story about how astatine was connected to helium be told? I decided it should indeed be in a formally published journal article. But it was also important to tell the story more or less as it happened, and particularly to include the role that the blogs themselves had played.

In fact, as soon as I started this undertaking, I realised that more calculations, and at a rather higher theoretical level, needed to be done in order to persuade the referees of the article that the science was sound, and also that it advanced our knowledge significantly. In the event, although the calculations were repeated, enhanced, or evolved in some manner or other, and new ideas injected, none of the original assertions was proven wrong (and of course its now not just me that thinks this, but the  2-3 referees who also commented). Ultimately, I would estimate I ended up spending perhaps ten times as much time on the journal article as on the sum of the initial blog posts on the topic. It an interesting question as to whether the motivation needed to put in this amount of care and attention could also have been generated with blog as the sole output medium (see my opening remarks).

The article is now published (DOI: 10.1038/nchem.596). Of course, you can only read it if your institution (or you personally) has a subscription to the journal (although, like this blog, the article can be located using public search facilities such as Google Scholar). There is another aspect of both the blog and the article worth mention. Both contain data. The blogs contain the molecular coordinates of all the molecules discussed, as well as the DOIs for the digital repository where the calculations are archived. So does the article, in the form of an interactive table, although again access to this table may or may not require a journal subscription (in this regard I note that whereas an earlier article I wrote for this publisher, see DOI 10.1038/nchem.373, is protected from non-subscribers, the interactive table which is part of the article is openly accessible. The journal deserves full credit for allowing this data to be on public access).

There is another aspect of the blog and the article, which was alluded to above. I introduced the theme of linking concepts together. This very blog post (and all the others) have been subjected to analysis using the calais archive tagger. This automatically determines appropriate tags to annotate each post with, and then declares them using standard methods (which include RDF). The published article is similarly tagged by the publisher. In theory at least, this collection of materials, the blogs and their tags,  and the article and indeed commentaries about both, should be reconcilable using appropriate semantic searches. But at this point, I feel that this topic deserves separate attention and I will close here.

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To blog or to publish. That is the question.

  1. […] asked a while back whether blogs could be considered a serious form of scholarly scientific communication (and so has […]

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