Field of Science

Are chemists much more secretive and obsessive than physicists?

Derek said it on his blog today and I have been saying it for some time. The physics community did itself and others a great service by floating ArXiv, which has become the standard venue for publication of premium physics papers focused on theory and computation. As Derek asks, why isn't there such a free service started by chemists for their community?

I concur, and a related question I have concerns being able to look at citations. The APS website (which hosts the JACS-equivalent physics journal Physical Review among others) allows readers to view the number of citations for all its papers and therefore allows us to sort papers by citations. No such feature exists for ACS or Wiley chemistry journals; as far as I know one has to log in to a paid site like Web of Science to be able to view citations.

This leads me to a question of psychology.
Are chemists much more secretive and obsessive about their data and results compared to physicists? Are they much more self-conscious about revealing the impact (or lack thereof) of their publications to the public? Does some vestigial culture of secrecy going back to the alchemists' creed still linger in our minds?

It could not have to do with the status of the field since many branches of physics are as cutting edge as fields of chemistry. The first explanation that comes to my mind has to do with the color green. It's pretty clear that compared to physics, many fields of chemistry such as medicinal chemistry and materials science have money-making written on them. Unlike most physicists, chemists can patent their molecules and make money from them to a much greater extent. If this is the case, then a control group might be that of engineers. Is a reluctance to make publications or citations easily available also prevalent among the engineering community?

Yet such money-making results constitute only one part of the chemical literature. What about the several academic chemistry papers that have no tangible commercial potential? Why not make them available for free and make their citations available? I don't know the right explanation for this habit, but simple inertia and lack of vigorous discussion and initiative seem to clearly play a role. I do hope it's not because of a statistically significant difference between chemists and physicists that causes the former to hoard results.

The way I see it, the chemistry community clearly should borrow a page from the physicists. Firstly, certain kinds of chemistry papers (just like theoretical papers on ArXiv) need to be made available for free. Secondly, we all deserve a look at citation data which should not be so inaccessible and expensive. If science is supposed to be a community enterprise, this seems to be the least we can do.


  1. A quick technical comment on the citation thing you mention.

    The ACS, RSC, Wiley and NPG all tell you how many times an individual article has been cited in some way or other, but only once you're on the article (or its abstract) page.

    For example: Here the ACS tell you a paper has been cited 9 according to CrossRef, then gives you nice big links to the 2 papers that they've published. It also says 'For a more comprehensive list of citations to this article, users are encouraged to perform a search in SciFinder.'

    The RSC does it if you click on the 'Cited by' tab of the article abstract page, eg: Again this is generated by CrossRef (that's the service that allows you to hop from an article's reference to the referenced article itself)

    Wiley is similar. NPG gives you 3 different values for citations: CrossRef, Scopus or Web of Science. For the one I've just found (, these are quite different: 41, zero, 36 (respectively)!

    Every time you click on one of these articles or 'cited by' tabs, the list is generated from searching the entire CrossRef database. I imagine that might be tricky and slow to do for a whole TOC/search results page.

    And re the wider point of chemists being "secretive", we had a Commentary article looking at exactly that: Basically, chemists *are* different.

  2. Great, thanks very much for the detailed list; seems chemists are not too bad after all! I just like the much more readily visible list of citations appearing on the APS website. For example, search for "Oppenheimer" in the author field and you get a list with citations for every paper right away. Would be nice if we could have a similar feature for ACS and Nature.

  3. Perhaps it’s because cutting edge physics experiments are large and require lots of collaboration, unlike most of chemistry research. A big development in chemistry could come from a small group working in a couple of fume hoods. They are much more easily beaten to publication by a competing group (and consequently lose out on any subsequent recognition) than physicists working on something like the LHC, so they are secretive until their work is published.

  4. That's a very good point and one which I would like to think about some more. I would have to look at the old days when teams were competing neck to neck for the total synthesis of steroids to explore this viewpoint.

  5. I suppose one thing to possibly examine is the relative popularity of preprints among physicists who aren't relying upon the LHC (for example) for their next round of papers. There's still plenty of physics which is done within a university/other institution-based lab (AMO physics, for instance) or where you simply need blocks of time at larger facilities (x-ray or neutron sources). I know there's been plenty of preprints available on the iron pnictide superconductor topic, which has been a fairly hot topic over the last few years in certain circles.

    I seem to recall that anything funded by NIH needs to eventually be made public access after six months at the latest. Given the non-trivial numbers of academic chemists who obtain funding from there (naturally in the hopes of improving their chances of getting a call from Sweden in October, as I am sure the blogosphere will lament again this year, heh), I suppose as the years progress, we will eventually start seeing more papers in the public domain (although perhaps not upon initial publication).

  6. Tom's right. One of the things about chemistry (particularly ochem) is the fast turnaround time. You can have someone tell you about a reaction you've never heard of in the morning and have a good idea of whether it works by late afternoon. Look at what Paul did in an afternoon. Given the easy availability of most reagents the emphasis on secrecy is understandable.

  7. Agree, I have the same feeling about both medicinal chemistry, and molecular modeling especially.

  8. Hey all, not to be a voice of pessimism, but I have to say that chemistry, especially organic chemistry, subtly encourages secrecy and feudalism instead of knowledge advancement.

    Tom and James are right: we're in the "ideas business," and most chemists, once they've seen the scheme, can duplicate a month's thought effort in a day or two. A motivated asst. professor could even hear about new research at a conference, fly home on the red-eye, and immediately have his group crank out a substrate table. If his paper is accepted first, he gets all the credit. Hence, the complaint by many chemists that no one presents truly "original" data at conferences anymore.

    In a climate of shrinking research dollars and instantaneous global exchange via the internet, secrets become your insurance for keeping a job. If you (or your group) are the only people in the world, who, say, can make a particular catalyst or work with certain reactive intermediates, you can be sure the next proposal or grant will come your way.

  9. Secrecy seems to be a priority even after publication.

    During a research placement between the 3rd/4th years of my undergraduate degree I was asked to synthesise some iridium nanoparticles. They had been reported in at least five papers and the experimental sections in all of them were terrible—extremely imprecise, vague, complete absence of masses/moles, reaction times, conditions. Never did manage to make them.

    Had the same problems making some other nanoparticles for my final year reseach project. It amazes me that it gets through peer review. We are meant to be able reproduce results afterall. Thankfully I did work it out in the end!


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