Magical and Malleable Research Stories: the ChemRxiv platform

September 13, 2019
Ideas That MatterJulia Winter


The name:  It’s a play on archive. The original preprint serves had a Greek Chi instead of an X, that that was the joke, R-Chi-V, so archive. The website name is pronounced Chem-archive, but the URL is, and as long as you can spell it that’s all that really matters. It’s a cool name but a bit confusing for the non-expert, we recognize that.


What it is: It’s a preprint server. Which is a fancy way of saying it’s a place to put your papers prior to peer review. The research is farther along than what you would give as a talk or seminar, but not quite a journal article yet. It’s in that magical time where the work is mostly a complete story, but still malleable because you can get and implement feedback on it. The major goal of a preprint server is decoupling dissemination from validation, two tasks that have both historically been done by journals. You can take the dissemination back into your own hands and have the freedom to let people read the work before it goes through peer review. You can get feedback or put something a bit more solid than “in preparation” on your CV or use the work as part of a grant application. I view this as a place to put papers when you decide they are ready to be read.

The process: When we started this, less than half of the chemistry journals allowed pre-preprints, most notably missing was the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Early on it was definitely one of those things where you wanted to check with the journal beforehand. Now, we’re at a point where the vast majority of chemistry journals take preprints. There’s less risk if you forget to ask the journal editors beforehand, though it’s good form to check the journal policy to be sure.

The fears in the early days of ChemRxiv weren’t unjustified, it was a kind of the wild west regarding who took preprints, but now all ACS-owned journals, all RSC journals and others like Wiley, Elsevier, Nature have policies that allow preprints. The only restriction I’ve heard is in the ACS inorganic and organic portfolio, wherein they ask that you not to revise your preprint while undergoing peer review.

Who uses ChemRxiv: The make-up of who submits has been changing over time. Historically, computational chemistry has been our biggest subject and biological chemistry was up there, then materials. Which makes sense, as they had some familiarity with arXiv and BioRxiv and what preprints were. The first real sign that we were going to make it was when organic chemistry appeared in our top five subjects. Now it’s number three, with currently 25% of submissions are computational, followed by 13% materials, and then 10% organic.

A lot of folks told me when I started this to not even bother talking to organic chemists, especially the methodology folks, because this does not jive with what they do. It’s not that I am saying we need more organic chemistry, it’s just that as we see these percentages shift, it starts looking a lot more like the chemistry field at large. 

I’m really excited to see that our analytical chemistry submissions have doubled in the last six to eight months, and inorganic chemistry is similar to that. Chemical Education is not necessarily our biggest subject yet, but it is definitely growing. 

ChemRxiv Scroll Through

Research from undergraduates: It’s harder to track down which papers come from undergraduates, but we see a fair amount of material about chemical education coming from primarily undergraduate institutions. There’s one case that’s really exciting from Alex Spokoyny’s lab at UCLA from about a year ago. He was teaching a chemistry lab course for advanced undergraduates and as part of this course they had to put together a paper on palladium catalysis, which they posted it on ChemRxiv. The students loved it because they could send it to their families, and then put it on their CV and get a tangible, external result immediately. This was a huge confidence boost for these juniors, who were getting ready to apply to graduate school. The paper ended up getting published in Dalton Transactions months later. This was a very clever use of the ChemRxiv service with the research tied to a class and gave his undergraduates a great return on their personal investment in the process.

Research in progress: Some uses of ChemRxiv are for research that may not usually be formally published. Like somebody’s negative results or methodology research where it’s not clear what the end result is going to be. One area that takes advantage of the platform and allows us to rethink the publication process from a cultural perspective is happening in organic chemistry. Say the research is an internally complete story, but there’s a juicier prize to come. For instance, you have a really great transformation, and a useful one, but the ee’s (enantiomeric excesses) are just terrible. In the past you had to pick and choose whether to throw it off to a specialist journal and call it done. Or you just cross your fingers and hope nobody scoops you before you solve the problem. Now, some groups are putting the work up on ChemRxiv. It’s not going to protect them from getting scooped, but it makes sure the work is out there and part of the conversation. The researcher can show the provenance of the work and if they solve the ee problem, they can revise the preprint and then submit to the journal. It’s a way to have your cake and eat it too. You don’t have to put out the least publishable unit, but you can put up your work in pseudo real-time. It frees researchers from the idea that the work cannot be published until it’s all buttoned up, taking advantage of good stopping points before the story is complete.

Research sharing through Twitter: Twitter has been a very important part of ChemRxiv largely because we’ve had a great following there and I am comfortable using it to promote the service. It’s also a way people could disseminate work in bits, and have conversations on the fly, especially as Twitter is a becoming a more accepted tool for communication between scientists. The Altmetric widget on the ChemRxiv website is a way to measure the impact of a preprint in the first days of posting the article and seeing how many times the article has been tweeted or re-tweeted or picked up in the news with articles or blogs. It’s good for our authors to see the validation of their work and the response in the community.

From Nature Chemistry to ChemRxiv: I got into the world of publishing largely by accident, when a postdoc lab moved abruptly after I had just started it. I was thinking maybe it was time to pump the brakes on the postdoc and then the job at Nature Chemistry presented itself. When I started the editor position, I thought, “what kind of research could I champion or elevate?” As I stayed in the position, I realized that there’s so much excellent research and you decide on a razor’s edge. Being an editor, even if I was passionate about the ‘yes’s I gave, I ended up giving out many more ‘no’s. That did not sit well with me, so I took a hard turn the other way, and now I say ‘yes’ to just about everything!

I started doing some consulting with ACS on ChemRxiv from the perspective of a professional editor and sat on a panel at the ACS meeting in 2017 in Washington DC. I ended up interviewing for the position of running the platform. I really wanted to build a tool that helped people accelerate their research and elevate it in a way that helped as many people as possible. I latched onto the idea that this was going to be a way to take more control over the research, expand visibility of that work, and give researchers a tool they did not have before. 

Late to the party: Submissions are way ahead of where we expected them to be. We had planned for the end of 2020 to have a total of 5,600 submissions. It looks like we are going to hit that around Thanksgiving of this year. Chemists may be late to the party, but they are definitely delivering on enthusiasm. The folks at arXiv sort of riff on chemistry for being slow to adopt things, but at least it seems that we are jumping in with both feet and that’s exciting.


Kirlikovali, K. O.; Cho, E.; Downard, T. J.; Grigoryan, L.; Han, Z.; Hong, S.; Jung, D.; Quintana, J. C.; Reynoso, V.; Ro, S.; Shen, Y.; Swartz, K.; Ter Sahakyan, E.; Wixtrom, A. I.; Yoshida, B.; Rheingold, A. L.; Spokoyny, A. M.* "Buchwald-Hartwig Amination Using Pd(I) Dimer Precatalysts Supported by Biaryl Phosphine Ligands", Dalton Trans. 2018, 47, 3684-3688.


Winter 2017, Chemistry 174 Independent Course Project. Daily Bruin.

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