More concerns in bottled water, via Chemistry World

Everyone remember BPA? The stuff your water bottle now proudly proclaims it doesn’t have? There’s a new suspect in town to get flustered over. Bis(2-ethylhexyl) (2E)-but-2-enedioate.

Mugshot of the perp.

Mugshot of the perp.

But the Chemistry World link doesn’t answer a pretty fundamental question: Where’s this molecule coming from? Even the study’s authors skirt around the question a bit. I’d wager it’s a plasticizer: a small molecule added to the plastic in the water bottles to help make it more malleable and processable. The long branched hydrocarbon sidechains are a pretty strong hint. They prevent the plastic molecules (who love to hang out with each other) from getting too tightly packed and cozy, which would end up giving you a brittle inflexible water bottle. (The authors suggest it’s the decomposition product of some other molecule, but it sure looks like a conventional plasticizer to me.)

Because these types of molecules haven’t traditionally been regulated, or even monitored terribly closely, it’s tough to say if its concentration is too little to be much concerned about or not. That’s another reason that the study is nice – we’ve now got some definitive sleuthing that this molecule is in 18 different bottled waters from 13 different companies from varying countries (did I mention that’s how widespread it is, cuz that’s how widespread it is). It’s not possible to say with certainty how this molecule affects your health (Chem World notes that this particular one is not known to produce both the anti-androgenic and anti-estrogenic activities of suspected molecules), BUT it certainly ain’t gonna help your body any.

Original study (open access, woohoo!) here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0072472

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Mendeley, we hardly knew ye

In a frenzied bout of writing for The Connective‘s 48-hour crowd sourced magazine (associated with Wired), I stumbled on some news I somehow missed. Mendeley, the popular organizational tool for academic references, was bought out by Elsevier this month for about $1 million.

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Om nom nom, open access!

Mendeley is a program that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve been using it since the start of my grad student career 4 years ago, which is just about the time Mendeley itself popped into existence. So we’ve kind of grown up together. As a reference management tool, I can’t help but sing its praises. There are tons of features that I’ve become way too enamored with to ever help giving up now: auto-searching of article meta data (authors, publication name, year, issue, etc.), tagging and foldering, exporting of ref info for citation management, and in-text searching are really high on my list of awesomeness.

But I’ve really been impressed with is Mendeley’s gradual but systematic online-focused push toward openness, sharing, and collaboration. There are options for networked group sharing, which I’ve used with lab-mates to make reference hunting a dream. And they’ve introduced recommendation and discovery options, in which social media-like connections are synthesized based on user data. “Hey, that series of German papers on metal-catalyzed coupling chemistry which you just added to your database?Well 90% of people who have in their databases also have this one, in case you missed it.”

I was excited to see where Mendeley would continue to go. Now, I’m hesitant. That’s because Elsevier just bought Mendeley. And Elsevier is the epitome of a closed access scientific publication giant. They made over $1 billion in profit last year, largely based on the subscription and access fees to their articles. So that’s worrying.

On top of that, Elsevier was the subject of a big academic boycott starting last year. If you didn’t hear, thousands of researchers (largely mathematicians, but not exclusively), decided to boycott all of Elsevier’s nearly 3000 journals. No publishing in them, no peer-reviewing for them, the works. The main argument was that Elsevier has prohibitively at best (and intellectually destructive at worst) financial practices. The money they want is waaay more than the money they need. Tim Gowers, the researcher whose blog post launched the whole boycott, but it succinctly:

In brief, if you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn’t.

There’s a bit of cynicism in me that thinks the acquisition, at least in small part, may be a bit of an attempt to save face. Elsevier, to no one’s surprise, is touting the acquisition as a move toward openness. They’ve got a somewhat underwhelming Q&A with Mendeley to address folks like me who are spilling a lot of digital ink about the situation. And there are a few of us.

I’m skeptical at best. But the best approach is to probably wait and watch and hope Mendeley gets to keep its awesomeness coming, rather than being strong-armed to the business interests of Elsevier.