A Random Walk Through the Web of Mass Spectrometry

March 1, 2010

The Web contains a diverse collection of resources (tutorials, texts, images, videos, and animations) of interest to mass spectrometrists.

In libraries, patrons now often find that shelves of printed references have been replaced with computer terminals that access the array of electronic resources on the library intranet, as well as access to resources, information collections, and unsupervised sites and musings of the external web. Should casual readers look a bit more carefully through the reference lists for "Mass Spectrometry Forum" over the past year, they would find at first a smattering, and then recently more references cited by their URL (universal resource locator) or by their DOI (digital object identifier). Some resources might be found in both printed and electronic form. The contrast between availability and portability of the forms is dramatic. But more and more, resources that support our continuing education in mass spectrometry are found solely in electronic form, and, through web access, are available virtually anywhere.

Kenneth L. Busch

The web, however, is more than a simple portal to educational resources for mass spectrometry (MS) that can be delivered and displayed electronically, but closely resemble the classic printed forms. Search engines provide the means to discover new resources, in both printed and visual form. Links between sites create the network of interrelated resources. Alerts can be set in a user profile so that newly posted resources (applications, technical notes, announcements, and new research publications) are brought to the attention of the users. Further, the web brings not only text, but images, sound, video, and interactivity to the user. None of this is any surprise in 2010; the expansion and maturation of the web has infiltrated modern life quite expertly. It is perhaps only when we hold a mass spectrometry book in our hand, and remember how eager we were to first purchase it and read it, that we might appreciate just how fundamental a change has occurred in our access to information resources.

A previous column (1), "Electronic Resources for Mass Spectrometry," appeared in 1996, which seems like (and is) ancient electronic history. The American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) was still publishing abstracts from the annual meeting in printed form. Recently, ASMS renamed the elected position of Member-at-Large for Measurements and Standards to Member-at-large Digital Communications to reflect changing responsibilities. The Journal of the Society is available electronically, conference papers are submitted electronically, and the Society creates webcasts for some sessions. An ASMS member can vote electronically for the elected positions, pay dues electronically, and update member information via the web. One of the challenges facing the member elected to this new position will be how all such electronic information should be archived, and how long it should be available, and to whom. It might seem that there is no substantial investment in maintaining electronic information, but there is in fact a substantial commitment to secure storage, ready access, and the availability of information in a digital form that will remain widely readable into the indefinite future.

It is time to revisit the web to survey the resources available to those interested in learning about MS, at all different levels. We begin with the obvious disclaimer that this overview cannot be comprehensive, but must be selective. Resources on the web are extensive, but there is no guarantee that they are not duplicative, and no assurance that the information presented is accurate. Of course the same is true for printed media, but while a poorly composed book can reach an audience of a few thousand readers, a website is available at the stroke of a key to millions. The price for accessibility is the speed with which inaccurate information can be dispersed, and the risk that such information cannot be traced or recalled. For commercial and other purposes, there are many sites that do not offer original content, but present collections of material from other sites, sometimes presented without proper attribution. The accuracy of the information on such aggregator sites must be evaluated carefully. Finally, and in contrast to the permanence of the printed page, the web is transient. Not only can the content of a web page change, but the availability of links also changes. The information might still exist on the web, but it is not clickable and can be accessed only with the full URL. As an example with which readers are surely familiar, search engines may index a site that is changed by the time a reader attempts to view it. Examination of cached sites and looking through the Wayback machine (2) provides some rudimentary tools to uncover information from the web that is not current.

In this not-so-random column, first, I have chosen specifically to include mostly noncommercial sites. This choice is not only for reasons of objectivity (as I would invariably fail to include all or to treat all equally), but also for reasons of practicality, as these are the sites (often with professional resources) that tend to update more often. Additionally, some require subscription or the entry of information that is properly of interest for sales and marketing. Second, I have not included tutorial sites in MS, such as might be associated with particular university courses. A future column will look at these sites, but will require a broader perspective than can be gained here. In particular, there is some reason to be concerned about overt errors that might appear on such sites. Textbook errors have long been a particularly vexing issues, as they cannot be corrected until the authors are made aware of them (through reviews or individual letters), and not until a new printed edition appears. One can assume that a website might be more easily corrected, but the proper and courteous process to do so is not yet agreed upon. In this column, we'll first visit websites for several professional societies and MS discussion groups, and then tour Murray's MS site (this does have a commercial connection) to show you the breadth of modern web tools. Finally, we will finish with a peek into a few sites on which you might encounter unexpected information. After all, it's often the accelerated threaded search from site-to-site that's the web parallel to informed and relaxing browsing through books in a library

Websites for professional societies provide a wealth of information not only to members, but to others interested in MS. As an example, consider the website for the International Mass Spectrometry Foundation (3). This Foundation oversees the International Mass Spectrometry conferences. Dates for conferences through 2016 are described. Conference reports are available on the site for meetings for the 18th Conference (2009) back to the 14th Conference in 1997. This snapshot of the conference provides metrics on attendance, and oral and poster presentations, and also recaps award winners for that particular conference. For the most recent conference, the abstracts for oral presentations (day by day), poster presentations, and keynote lectures can be accessed from the site. A separate link provides addresses and contact information for authors. A link to the most recent Bremen conference provides the ability to search through the text of the program (4). Commercial sponsor documents are available for download. For some sessions, and often through subscription, the full slide presentations for plenary and keynote lectures are available. In summary, the modern website provides the definitive record of the event, starting from well before the event to after it has been completed.

The websites of professional societies in MS around the world are generous in linking to each other. A list of societies is provided in Table I. Any given compilation found on the web may or may not link directly to the current hosting site, so user caution and patience are appropriate. Aside from information relevant to each individual society, these sites host many common links and often provide much the same basic information. However, each site can provide something unique. For instance, the Indian Society for Mass Spectrometry has published a directory of mass spectrometers, last updated in 2003. This listing by instrument throughout the country seems fairly unique and would be invaluable when attempting to identify and correct an instrumental problem via communication with users rather than directly with the manufacturer. The Dutch Society for Mass Spectrometry has a special tab for "History." Click on that link and you will be brought to a talk called "History of Mass Spectrometry in the Netherlands" by M.C. ten Noever de Brauw. All of the slides for this talk are presented, and describe a fascinating history of MS, with rare archives and photographs. Pay no attention to the definition of a mass spectrometrist found on slide 65. The website for the American Society for Mass Spectrometry provides free to all readers the "What is Mass Spectrometry?" resources, and these are duplicated on many sites devoted to specific university courses on MS or analytical spectroscopy.

Table I: A compilation of professional mass spectrometry societies as listed on the website for the International Mass Spectrometry Foundation. At any given time, a small percentage of the accompanying websites may be inactive or out-of-date.

Professor Kermit Murray of Louisiana State University oversees a "Mass Spectrometry blog" (5) described as "a web log of MS sites and other links and items of interest." This site is an excellent example of just how powerful combined web sources can be in providing descriptions of MS at all levels, from basic tutorials to the latest research and applications. Accordingly, we'll step through a few features (randomly because I have a personal interest in some of them and admit to not fully understanding others). The following assumes that the appearance of the site does not change radically in the time between composing this column and its appearance in print format.

On the right of the blog site is that invaluable "search" tool. What appears on the screen from the blog is limited. One can scroll down through individual windows, but presumably (hopefully) the search for results from the blog will automatically include past archived material that exists on the server without a direct appearance in the current window. The window below promises access to archives that extend from January 2002 through May 2004, although none of these links seem to be active. The blog does link directly to various Wiki feeds relevant to MS, and to "feeds" from journals of MS and analytical chemistry in general. Links to podcasts would qualify as "other items of interest" as these might not be related directly to MS. Murray's blog also provides you with presorted collections of tags to groups (MS and otherwise), companies, resources, software, news (via a Google search on "mass spectrometry"), and finally, to other blogs on MS (unfortunately, not active). A selection of articles from several current issues for MS journals is included, as well as a fascinating subsection of the site that details the latest changes to the Wikipedia entries relevant to MS. Murray also includes a section on job openings currently available for mass spectrometrists.

Murray's selections of news on MS and allied topics are laid out in the righthand window of the blog site. This author's understanding is sometimes stretched (expanded), such as the information on the "mass spectrometry word cloud" of October 18, 2009. This scrolling window contains direct links to video and animations, as well as slide shows. On April 3, 2009, I learned about Slideshare, and clicked through a slide presentation (complete with transcript) on the basics of tandem MS (MS-MS). Looking a little deeper on the slideshare site for this particular resource, I found that 7925 users had viewed all or part of this presentation, and that it had been downloaded 251 times. There was one comment for this particular contribution. Each of Murray's news entries provides for comments. Most had none, and a few had only a few. One would assume that more abundant comments and ample discussions appear on the LinkedIn site devoted to MS (see Murray's link on April 2, 2009). It is not characteristic of mass spectrometrists to be so quiet.

From spending time scrolling through the site, it should be clear that it takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort to create and maintain a site as useful as Murray's blog. It is a service to the community that is probably not given full credit by colleagues and users. Several hours a day could be devoted to its maintenance and its updates, and that level of effort is beyond the level of an individual. We are led to two conclusions: There will be a time delay and a level of incompleteness in any aggregator site, and we should exhibit both patience and offer assistance; and responsibility for such sites, including the still larger and more complex sites of the future, will either be drawn from commercial groups, or groups of professionals dedicated to the field of MS. The latter concept is an interesting parallel with the small groups of professionals that formed the first users for MS in the 1950s and 1960s.

Finally, an explorer of the web might find sites that unexpectedly link to MS, or that contain novel information. No links are provided here; this task is designed to be completed by readers. Knowing a bit of history, and with the ability to surf the web, you might find the site that describes "Isotopes and Aston's Mass Spectrograph" in the Museum of the Cavendish Laboratory. You might find the Wasserburg mass spectrometer, as acquired by the National Museum of American History (part of the Smithsonian museums). You might also find a "Vintage Mass Spectrometer" at the Schenectady Museum. One can visit the site of a bookseller such as Amazon to create a list of all books that include the term "mass spectrometry," or to determine which textbook is listed as bestselling on that site, or which is available as a download as a Kindle book. There are too many sites to mention that include lists of "trivia" questions related to MS, mentions of MS on television shows, and 2840 sites that hit the search for both "mass spectrometer" and "Star Trek." Photography has gone digital, and images (and video) are now as easily uploaded to the web as is text. One can search the web for images related to search terms, and by so doing uncover a website that celebrates the visit of Professor R.G. Cooks to the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics in July 2009 (6), or images from his attendance at the International Mass Spectrometry Conference in Bremen in September 2009 (7). Finally, while electronic translation abilities are still primitive, especially for constrained technical language, a web resource can be translated from one language to another.

Mass spectrometers are connected to each other in our laboratories over an intranet of some sort. Various research laboratories within an individual company are interconnected, and data streams from site to site, as needed. Traditional print publications describing research and applications of MS have evolved into complementary print and electronic forms, and the continued shift into the web and virtual worlds seems assured. The last great conservative bastion is the use of web resources and technology in teaching and education. There has been much research, much debate, more than a few grand schemes, and, not surprisingly, a few experiments that concluded not so well. MS sites on the web always will be a display of diversity, and increasingly will incorporate images, video, animations, comments, and discussions as well as text. Their links will become more extensive and multilayered. There will be more direct access to original data as well as its interpretation. The web can host both a more visible reasoned debate as well as more acrimonious disputes. Professional MS societies might wish to consider means to certify accuracy and completeness for information as a service both to their members but also to the general public.

Kenneth L. Busch maintained a collection of reprints for his scientific publications. The half-life of a publication is short, and it became tiresome to maintain paper reprints in the file. Moving boldly into the future a mere 10 years late, he recently scanned all past publications into pdf format, and recycled the paper. The oeuvre is now strictly electronic, and the author can now be wiped out in a single hard-drive failure. Contact the author (who still maintains a flesh-and-blood existence) at wyvernassoc@yahoo.com. The author is solely responsible for the contents of this column.


(1) K.L. Busch, Spectroscopy 11(6), 32 (1996).

(2) See: http://www.archive.org.

(3) See: http://www.imss.nl/

(4) See: http://www.imsc-bremen-2009.de/imsc2/submissions.php?navid=14

(5) See: http://mass-spec.lsu.edu/blog/

(6) See: http://english.dicp.cas.cn/ns/icn/200909/t20090907_36392.html

(7) See: http://www.imsc-bremen-2009.de/imsc2/bildergalerie/galerien/Friday__Sep__4__2009/index.php?navid=