Introspective spectroscopy

Biospectroscopy
May 29, 1998

I have in my hands the first three years' (1995-1997) publications of Biospectroscopy. Like most new journals it is published commercially, in this case by John Wiley, which must believe that it will sell. My feeling is that any new journal will have a difficult time unless it offers something very special. Libraries are getting short of funds and private subscribers are likely to be few. So what gives John Wiley the confidence to go ahead with Biospectroscopy?

I should explain what the journal intends to cover as judged by the editor's remarks and the publications so far. The major topics are Raman and infrared vibrational, visible and ultraviolet, and fluorescence, spectroscopies with all other methods somewhat poorly represented. There seems to be little intention of covering nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy in depth; and although electron spin resonance and X-ray spectroscopies may appear now and again, these techniques are well covered by existing journals. It will be surprising if this journal can gather more than three or four papers a year using these methods; and the list of scientific editors suggests that the journal's main concern will be with vibrational studies.

It is usual today to see bio- this or bio- that as areas into which chemists and physicists stray. This is not just because purely chemical and physical systems have lost some interest, but, through the advance of techniques, biological molecules and even cells and whole organs have been opened for study by physical-chemical methods. The major advance has been made using X-ray diffraction. This has provided structures of really large molecules at atomic resolution, which greatly assists other physical-chemists, here spectroscopists, in examining local details of structure and mechanism. The X-ray method sometimes fails to give the exact geometry of interesting chemical groups or the positions of very light atoms. In this, spectroscopic methods often have advantages. They are also useful in analysis of materials, especially of their minority components.

Often, however, as in the articles of this journal, spectroscopy is employed to give a much more sophisticated account of the material under study. For the general reader of this review, I should explain that the reactivity of molecules does not just depend upon the ground state structure, as obtained by X-ray diffraction, but on excited states that spectroscopy alone can examine. Thus, in principle, a spectroscopist has a real role to play in the study of the way biological systems work. Now all materials can be examined by these methods, but unfortunately it is often difficult in practice to draw firm, useful conclusions from the spectroscopic data. The danger is that Biospectroscopy will be filled out with studies that have little impact. For example an issue of 10 papers is devoted to gallstones and similar objects. There are certainly some properties of these amorphous, inhomogeneous bodies that spectroscopy - perhaps alone - can uncover, but surely the big interest lies in their biochemical formation and in their removal or destruction. Unless the study of their nature is revealing in these respects it becomes a mere catalogue of unimportant things. Spectroscopic observations are often not readily interpreted so that they can be placed in a wider context. Studies under the heading "Biospectroscopy" may be too introspective.

I worry about the value of journals such as this. Do they tend to be so specialised as to be outlets for groups of scientists who form small self-interested bodies with little general appeal? This returns me to my original question. Does John Wiley expect this journal to sell? I would not advise our library to take the journal.

A possibly amusing side issue is that the European editor is British, yet Britain has no members of the advisory board of 40 and there are but two papers from Britain, both from the county of the British editor, Yorkshire. Is this another example of British science lagging behind? If so, is it due to the difficulty inherent in British education of promoting interdisciplinary research? Or is it that grant-giving bodies could not see where such work as is published here is leading?

Robert J. P. Williams is emeritus professor of chemistry, University of Oxford.

Biospectroscopy

Editor - Laurence A. Nafie
ISBN - ISSN 1075 4261
Publisher - Wiley
Price - $116.00 (individuals)$9.00 (institutions)

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