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Interview by David Bradley ISSUE #54
April 2006
Interview with Martin Walker

Martin Walker grew up in Whitley Bay on the North East coast of England. In 1981 he received a BSc (Hons) degree in chemistry from the University of Bristol. After graduation he went to work for Fine Organics, Ltd., in the north east of England, where he worked in R&D, developing manufacturing processes for fine chemicals (pharmaceutical intermediates, etc.). While there he also became interested in chemical information (literature searching and the like).

Martin WalkerIn 1992, he relocated to Newburyport, MA, USA, where he worked as a research associate for polyOrganix, Inc., again developing processes for fine chemical manufacture. In 1993, he moved to Brandeis University to work for Professor James Hendrickson. He is currently working as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the State University of New York College at Potsdam in northern New York State. He teaches organic chemistry, along with some general chemistry and a course on Sustainable Manufacturing. His main areas of research are in green chemistry, exochemistry, and the use of fluorous biphasic systems.

Walker is also an enthusiastic member of the Wikichem community on Wikipedia.

Whitley Bay to Bristol to New York? How come?

I chose Bristol because it has an excellent chemistry department, and I also wanted to see another part of the UK. I returned to Tyneside after graduation and I have enormous affection for the North East. As for my move to the US, it's a long story, though I didn't plan to stay more than three years. Once in the US, I found that support for postgraduate students getting their PhDs was much better than at home - I took advantage of this to get my PhD in organic synthesis with Jim Hendrickson at Brandeis University. While there I met my American wife, and I also found that there were many more opportunities for teaching undergraduates here compared to the UK, so I decided to stay. There's a lot I miss in the UK, though, particularly family and friends.

In this age of electronic communication, teleconferencing and instant messaging is it still necessary for chemists to attend conferences?

Absolutely, yes! There is no substitute for face-to-face meetings to make and maintain contacts in the chemistry community. Also, seeing people like Dick Heck (talking about how he discovered the Heck reaction) was very exciting, I'd rather be in the room. However, attending conferences can get pretty expensive, and there are also the environmental issues to consider. I do think that we could use teleconferencing a lot more to help keep ourselves up-to-date and to contact distant colleagues.

The increase in the number, diversity, and specialization of scientific journals seems to continue, might we one day access all chemical literature transparently from a single search resource?

The move towards electronic publishing will probably make it easy to handle the increase. Crosslinking between publishers will help, as will the DOI. Rather than one central site, I expect to see a web of chemical information that is linked together seamlessly.

In what ways does unnecessary bureaucracy continue to stifle science?

This hasn't been a burden for me, personally, but I think everyone's experience is different. If we expect the general population to pay for our work through their taxes, we need to provide justification for their support, but this shouldn't take precedence over the science itself.

Tell me about WikiChem.

At present, there is an unbelievable amount of chemical information out there, but most of this is inaccessible from a general web search without paying money. I found my students using web searches as a principle method for finding information, but there is limited free information on the web. There are some very useful sites like organic-chemistry.org and webelements.com, but material on these sites still carries copyright restrictions. I like the fact that with Wikipedia (a) Information is very easy to find; (b) Everything is linked seamlessly into a vast array of information - so if you find out that Ryoji Noyori was born in Kobe, Japan, you can click on the link to learn about Kobe - that comprehensiveness is something the chemistry-only sites can never have. There are many useful external links and references too; and (c) Nearly all of the content is free of copyright, and anything that isn't is tagged as such.

How was your talk at the recent ACS meeting, on the subject of Wikichem, received?

I think it went well, and I had some good discussion after the talk. There is a lot of interest in Wikipedia at the moment among information professionals. Scientific publishers and academics are also interested in using wikis, as shown by the experiment starting up at ACS Chemical Biology.

Wikipedia as a whole has had some negative press recently, how can such issues be addressed in the long run?

I think at least some of the concerns about anonymous edits on Wikipedia have been addressed by tightening up on access, and the "political editing" was dealt with very quickly. I would not regard the Nature study as negative press - it showed that Wikipedia was only a little behind Britannica (not "better than"). Although the study had flaws, I think their general conclusions are not too far from the truth. I think that the differences in opinion between the expert author at Britannica and the expert reviewer at Nature highlight the problems of relying on one single expert in judging content. Wikipedia may lack world-class experts, but it avoids narrow viewpoints by reaching a consensus among contributors.

Wikipedia does take negative criticism extremely seriously, and within hours of the Nature study many of the errors were corrected. Most politically or commercially motivated edits are spotted and reverted quickly by automated "bots" or the Wikipedia community. There have recently been changes made to restrict what anonymous contributors can do, I'm sure that will help. In the longer term, there are plans to introduce "stable versions" of articles, and possibly validated versions where a panel of experts has declared the article to be error-free. We'll have to see if these things become realities.

Political and technical issues aside, in what ways will WikiChem help chemists do better chemistry?

Wikipedia chemistry is still limited in both breadth and content, but it is growing very rapidly. Putting all that reference information on chemists' desktops will make it easier to find. If I want to find the solubility of gold(III) chloride, or a couple of lead references on the asymmetric aldol reaction, I can find that information very quickly and easily on Wikipedia. In education it helps too, since it puts a vast amount of chemical information on our students' desktops as well. It also makes information available in many languages (gold(III) chloride is available in Thai and Czech, for example), making chemical information more readily available to non-English speakers. I think in time Wikipedia will be a standard bookmark like Google, so people (including chemists) will use it for reference information the way they use Google for searching.

What qualifications does one need to join in with the WikiChem activities?

A basic knowledge of chemistry, a responsible attitude and a respect for others' contributions. A passion for free access will help. If you have these things, you will earn the respect of the Wikipedia chemical community. You will also be able to find your niche, be it helping to list articles, assessing article quality for the worklist or contributing to the articles themselves.

There are dozens of other excellent chemistry resources on the web; how might these various threads be pulled together?

The search engines help with this, and Wikipedia does too, by being comprehensive. Crosslinking helps, and Wikipedia already does this extensively, some other sites are less useful for this. As I said, I expect in time to see a web of chemical information linked together.

Do you foresee easy structure and substructure searching becoming available to WikiChem users?

Yes, eventually, but that will require software changes. We already support SMILES, we're introducing InChI, and there are plans to include Jmol once the software allows it. However, structure searches are less of a priority for Wikipedia than they are for CAS or PubChem, since the focus is on writing more detailed information on a few thousand compounds rather than basic information on millions. At present, "redirect" pages ensure that typing in a chemical name will usually get you straight to the article, while "related compounds" and categories help in finding compounds of a particular type.