Rich Apodaca recently wrote a post highlighting StackOverflow – a community discussion site for software development, suggesting that a similar type of site for chemists would not work. He also posted a follow up listing some factors that make something like StackOverflow unlikely for the chemistry community. I had made a quick comment noting that one difference between the culture of the chemistry and software communities was possibilities of commercialization. On thinking about it a little, this is not entirely correct, as both communities generate ideas and work that lead to commercialization.
But I think that the difference lies in the nature of the commercialization process. As Rich pointed out in his followup post, entrepreneurship and resources are two important sources of differences between the chemistry and software communities. In the latter community, two people can implement an idea with minimal resource investment and end up with a profitable product. In contrast, two chemists might come up with an idea, but in many cases, it will require significant investment in resources to get an initial product (and scale up would be a separate issue).
In that sense, the process of commercialization in chemistry can be a longer process – and if that’s the case, it’s not surprising that we see the differences. In fact, if we’re comparing chemistry to some computer related field, it seems that a comparison with the computer hardware is more appropriate than computer software, especially when we consider the costs involved in the commercialization process. (Though with FPGA’s and chip fabs, computer hardware startups are probably easier than a chemistry startup).
Another factor that differentiates chemistry from computer software or hardware, is that chemistry projects are not usually spare time projects. One can write software or design (basic) hardware as a spare time thing which, if they turn out to feasible/useful/interesting can be transformed to an actual product. Again, this goes back to the costs involved in testing out and implementing new ideas without institutional backing.
Rich’s other points are also good and I think his comments on patents vs copyrights is especially important. However, I’m not so sure about the issue of history – obviously, history brings tradition (baggage?), but is this really a big factor? It seems that the implications of history overlap to a large degree with “established communication channels”