Looking for ConfChem? ConfChem now resides at its new site, confchem.ccce.divched.org

The Twentieth Anniversary of ConfChem Online Conferences: Past, Present and Future

Robert E. Belford, Harry E. Pence, Andrew P. Cornell and Jon L. Holmes

November 7, 2013 - November 9, 2013

This is the twentieth anniversary of the ConfChem online conferences, which may make them the oldest ongoing online conference in chemical education, or possibly the chemical sciences.  This paper will give an overview of the evolution of ConfChem and this related newsletter. We will also introduce you to new CCCE efforts to resurrect the archives and introduce a folksonomy that can connect past papers to present and future papers.

Article PDF: 



The Twentieth Anniversary of ConfChem Online Conferences:
Past, Present and Future



The CCCE, the Committee on Computers in Chemical Education, is a standing committee of the ACS Division of Chemical Education.  We are all volunteers with the majority of our members being faculty at academic institutions. In this paper we will provide an overview of our Newsletter and online ConfChem conferences, from a past, present and future perspective. We will look at how our communications have evolved from paper-based media to online publications utilizing social web technologies. In this paper we will introduce our latest project, a folksonomy indexing of our archives.  We can provide you with access to our development site, http://confchem.ccce.us/, and are seeking your input on this project before we move it to the production servers at divched.org.  It is our hope that this new functionality will be part of next year’s ConfChem and Newsletter articles.

Part 1: The Past

The Printed CCCE Newsletter (1978-2000)

The CCCE Newsletter started as a printed communication, with the oldest one we have so far found being the March 1985 issue (fig. 1).  As this is Volume VIII, Number 1, we can deduce that the first Newsletter was published in 1978.  We are currently seeking old editions and the ones we have found are posted online at http://www.ccce.divched.org/Newsletter.  Would you please contact Dr. Robert Belford (rebelford@ualr.edu) if you have access to any old Newsletters which are not posted at the above site?

Fig. 1.  March 1985 CCCE Newsletter and order form.

Currently, these old newsletters are only available as PDF files, but we are undertaking a project to scan them with OCR software, separate the individual articles and post them in a web 2.0 content management system. It is our intention for this to become tag-able, and part of our future folksonomic indexing (see part 3 of this article). When this project is completed the old printed Newsletters will have the same level of web presence as the new ones.  In 2000 the Newsletter went online and was run like a ConfChem, but there was no conference theme, with each paper being on a current topic related to the use of computers in chemical education.


Origins of ConfChem: ChemConf (1993-1998)

Around 1991 Bill Halpern started the CHEMED-L list at the University of Western Florida, and  in 2011 CHEMED-L moved to Google Groups http://groups.google.com/group/chemed-l . This list is actively used today by the chemical education community to discuss a wide variety of chemical education related topics. ConfChem actually evolved out of early CHEMED-L discussions.

The idea originated in 1992, on the CHEMED-L listserv.  Members of that listserv had been using it to announce upcoming meetings, conferences, and symposia. At one point, several interesting meetings were announced in a short period of time at difference locations; I commented that it would be difficult to attend all of them and I mused that it would be nice if these types of conferences, with presented papers and question-and-answer periods, could be conducted over the nascent Internet. Don Rosenthal was quick to support the idea and he and I organized the first "ChemConf“. – Tom O’Haver (private email correspondence)

The idea was to run an online conference by posting papers and discussing them on a list server. It was decided not to use CHEMED-L and a new list, CHEMCONF@UMDD.UMD.EDU was created for the sole purpose of discussing ConfChem papers. The first ConfChem, called ChemConf, was run in 1993 and organized by Donald Rosenthal and Thomas O’Haver. This basic model, which is what we are using to discuss this newsletter, has not substantially changed since the first ConfChem.  This year is the 20th anniversary of ConfChem, which we believe makes it the oldest ongoing online conference in the chemical sciences. To put this in perspective let’s look at a few comments from the 1993 survey that was given at the end of the first ConfChem.1

“This was my first experience using e-mail, so I was using it as a learning experience. I found it very rewarding, and expect to continue using e-mail when it makes sense.”   

 “E-mail puts everyone on equal footing: I can ask questions or state opinions with-out fear that they will be ignored because of my relative inexperience”

 “The face to face contact is lost, but for someone who is new to teaching it provided remarkable access to discussion.  At a usual conference I would not have known who to introduce myself to and who's conversations to eavesdrop on.”

 “Many of the discussion comments and ideas in the papers will be passed on to our Dean for consideration, as well as shared with other faculty.  The fact that it is in writing, rather than just notes from a conference, makes it easier to organize”

 “I didn't participate in any discussions but kept up with them daily by reading all messages that came through.  I picked up some good information and communicated by private e-mail with a few of the participants.  In this way, the conference was invaluable.  I now have e-mail addresses of a wide variety of people that I can call on with questions, etc.”

In the pre-web 1993 Confchem the papers were ACSII text files delivered by anonymous ftp and the images had to be separately downloaded. The instructions are still available; they were not platform independent and required the use of UNIX commands, which would obviously have been a challenge for many of the participants. Here is an excerpt from the “Instructions for Participants”:2

 “There are three steps involved in viewing these figures: (1) "down-loading" the figure to your personal computer; (2) converting it into a binary file; and (3) opening the resulting file in a GIF viewer.”

 The first conference in the chemical sciences to use the World Wide Web was the Electronic Computational Chemistry Conference organized by Steven Bachrach in 1994,3 which was followed by the first ConfChem to use internet browsers in 1995 (organized by Arlene Russell and Michael Pavelich). This was a major advance as through the use of Netscape Navigator the pictures were seamlessly embedded into the papers and you did not need separate instructions for different platforms. Both the list and the papers of the early ConfChems were maintained by Tom O’Haver at the University of Maryland.  In 1998, the name changed from ChemConf to ConfChem and the list moved from the University of Maryland to Clarkson University and was moderated by Donald Rosenthal, while Brian Tissue at Virginia Tech became the webmaster and was responsible for posting the papers.   In 2006 John Penn of West Virginia became the webmaster running the website until 2010, while Bob Belford took over moderating the list, which was moved to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2008. Over these years the CCCE posted papers on three different websites, with additional papers actually posted on the authors own web sites, and many of which have now been lost.


Part 2: The Present

Drupal 6 & Web 2.0

The need to consolidate ConfChems became apparent and a decision was made to host the online conferences on a Drupal 6 Web 2.0 site run by the ACS Division of Chemical Education, http://www.ccce.divched.org/.  Jon Holmes was instrumental in this work, and the new site was first used for the Spring 2010 ConfChem, and this is the site we are using in this Newsletter. The most obvious improvement was to connect the list server to the comment feature of each paper, thereby associating the discussions with the papers instead of storing them in a remote archive.  So now, instead of replying to emails, responses are pasted below the comment or article being responded to, and that triggers an email to the list.  We simply subscribe the ConfChem list to the paper being discussed. We also started creating a PDF of each paper and uploading that as a supporting file. The Drupal content management system also made it easy to embed YouTube videos, images, and even embedded applets that were run off an author’s servers.

The other major change was behind the scenes, and how we actually post the papers and conferences.  In 2011 we created two new content types, ConfChem-Conference and ConfChem-Article.  A web content type is a specific web page with pre-designated features, blogs, forums and wikis are typical content types.  The public viewable webpage extracts material from a database, and we started using taxonomies to generate the viewable content.  This article you are reading is of the ConfChem-Article content type and the Abstracts page is of the ConfChem-Conference content type. What you see on this Newsletter’s abstract page are three fields (title, author and abstract) extracted from the content-type “ConfChem Article” that are tagged “Fall2013Newsletter” and sorted by a fourth field, the date field.  If we changed the tag to Fall2012Newsletter, the article would appear in the abstracts page of last year’s Newsletter.

JCE ConfChem Feature

Clearly, the CCCE, being a group of volunteers does not have adequate resources for long term archiving, and we made an arrangement with the Journal of Chemical Education to bundle 800 word communications on each ConfChem paper into the printed journal.  These communications are abstracted with JCE provides a citable DOI. PDFs of the original ConfChem papers are uploaded as supporting information and thus the JCE version is a better source to cite.  The last three ConfChem have now been published in JCE, with each ConfChem being on a specific topic of relevance to the chemical education community.


Part 3: The Future

What is a Folksonomy? Why a Folksonomic Index of the Confchem Archives?

A folksonomy, a taxonomy created by the “folks,” is the resulting method for classifying a set of articles or comments using a set of user-generated tags. The term was coined in 2007 by Thomas Vander Wal (http://vanderwal.net/folksonomy.htm).  Vander Wal originally defined this as a, “user-created bottom-up categorical structure development with an emergent thesaurus.”  A more modern definition (from Wikipedia) is, “A folksonomy is a system of classification derived from the practice and method of collaboratively creating and managing tags to annotate and categorize content.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folksonomy) .  

Folksonomies have gained popularity because they have been used on popular web sites like Del.icio.us and Flickr.   Although popular, this method of information retrieval has several apparent disadvantages.  The query responses are not prioritized as they would be by a search engine, and the metacontent, i.e. the tags, are often not developed by information specialists who would use a controlled list of terms for the classification.    Thus, folksonomies are often considered less useful for seeking specific information than traditional search methods.  Sinclair and Cardew-Hall2 have compared the usefulness of folksonomies with traditional search and conclude that, “…tag clouds are useful when the information-seeking task is nonspecific.  That is, tag clouds support browsing or serendipitous discovery.” 

Instead of an open tagging process for the Newsletter and ConfChems, we will only allow participants within the ConfChem community access to tagging permissions, which will allow the emergence of new vocabularies and terms as they gain traction in the community of chemical educators.  Since the papers in the ConfChem database span a broad spectrum of topics, it is also hoped that this will lead to the discovery of fortuitous relationships that would be unlikely to result from more traditional methods. 

In 2012 the CCCE was awarded a small ACS Innovative Projects grant to develop the Folksonomy indexed ConfChem archive.  We created our first cloud based development site with Drupal 7 at http://ccce.us/ using the Bluehost cloud service, and are using the ConfChem subdomain in this project http://confchem.ccce.us/.  As mentioned earlier, we are now using taxonomies to publish our ConfChem papers and Newsletters.  These taxonomies are a closed vocabulary that define the particular Newsletter or ConfChem conference a paper belongs to.  But what if we used an open vocabulary and allowed the community to tag the papers?  Then you can create the equivalence of the abstract page of this newsletter that shows all articles defined by a given tag filter process.  That is, the equivalence of a Newsletter extracting articles from the archives based on the folksonomy. Please feel free to join us on our development site as we refine the user interface to make this as useful as possible to the community.

Figure 2 through 4 gives a screen shots of the development site.  Figure 2 is a display that an anonymous user who does not log in would see.  Note on the right are filter options and a list of tags they can use as they bundle papers from different conferences through their tags. Once we are done, you can relate papers from as far back as 1985 with the most current papers, and for example, see how ConfChem and Newsletter articles on “visualizations” have changed over the last 28 years.

Fig. 2: Screen shoot of a ConfChem papers sort list at confchem.ccce.us showing social tags and filter options.

Fig. 3: Two screenshots of ConfChem articles with the tag option.  The right screenshot shows tags a current paper has, and provides an autocomplete form for adding a tag.

Note, only authenticated users will see the tags option in figure 3, but everyone can use the tags.  Once we move to the divched.org server your ConfChem login will give you the ability to tag items, and you can tag both past papers and current papers you are actively commenting on. Only members of the ConfChem community can tag papers, but everyone can use them. 


Fig. 4: Screenshot giving the titles of papers which have been tagged with either safety, undergraduate or visualization.

This view is open to the public and on the left block are several options we have set up for extracting ConfChem papers.  We are still experimenting around and seeking input on useful interfaces. Figure 4 shows the Sortable Article List, where you can sort by date or title of all ConfChem and Newsletters, or just ConfChems or Newsletters, or a particular ConfChem or Newsletter.  The right block allows you to use the folksonomy to extract papers (fig. 5).


Fig. 5: Screenshot showing thea where papers tagged by highlighted terms on right block are extracted from the database.

In the right frame of figure 5 we have two ways of extracting content from the folksonomy.  The top block is an alphabetical scroll bar where you can choose one or more tags and extract titles, authors and dates of papers that have been tagged with the highlighted word.  You have several options, like “is one of”, or “is all of,” or even “is none of”. The second block is a hyper-linked list of the top 12 tags, with the number of papers tagged by each tag.  You can expand this list to see all tags.

Our objective is for the chemical education community to be able to extract from this corpus of literature content defined by this community’s tagging lexicon, thereby relating prior and current work in new ways. We intend to go public and port this to divched.org in the Spring of 2014. Please contact Bob Belford, rebelford@ualr.edu if you would like to assist in the test phase, and we will set you up with an account at the development site, confchem.ccce.us.  


This work has been graciously supported by an ACS Divisional Innovative Projects Grant.

1. http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~toh/ChemConference/ (last accessed Oct. 21. 2013)
2. http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~toh/ChemConference/ParticipantInstructions.txt (last accessed Oct. 25,2013)
3. Bachrach, Steven, M., Electronic Conferencing on the Internet: The First Electronic Computational Chemistry Conference. J. Chem. Inf. Comput. Sci., 1995, 35, 431-441.
4.   Sinclair, J., Cardew-Hall, M., The folksonomy tag cloud: when is it useful? J. Info. Sci., 2008, 34 (1), 15-29.


That's wonderful!

Is the discussion that must have happened also available?



Old Newsletter now Published

Hi All,

We now have a way of posting the old Newsletters,


Use of Tags

Hi Tom,

If you go to an article, just below the title you will see two options; View and Tags.  View is the default option, which allows you to "view" the article and associated files.  If you click Tags, you will see existing tags for the article (if it had already been tagged) and an autocomplete box to add tags (as you type it associates tags that are already in the system).  There will be two types of existing tags, "All tags" and "My tags".  If you tag an article, I will see your tag in the "All tags" (and not know who tagged it), while you will see it in "My tags".

If you go to the sortable article list, and click any of the tag terms in the tag cloud on the right frame (that has more than one article associated with it), you will see the article title and a teaser of all papers tagged by that term.  We are playing around with what we want to show, and are looking for input on that. We have not had time to set up an interface showing the ConfChems by conference, but are working on it.  If you click the link "Recent Content" (left menu) you see a table of Type, Title, Author, Replies and Last Update.  If you scroll down the table (I just had to go to page 2) and see a "type" of "ConfChem Conference", that will give you the display we are working on, but so far, I have only had time to tackle it for the first ConfChem, where I reposted material from your site, http://confchem.ccce.us/1993SummerConfChem.  Once I have more of them set up, we also be able to sort by conference.  But we are sort of figuring this out as we do it.

So now you go and tag a paper from the 1993 ConfChem on say "visualizations", someone else can tag one from say a 2008 ConfChem, and right now even the 1985 Newsletter, and when you hit that tag, you get to see all of those articles. But instead of seeing what you currently see (Title and Teaser), I am trying to figure how to generate a display like the one you see in the above link (Title, Author(s) and abstract - with links on the right to all the other items with the same tags).

But it is one thing at a time, and I thought it would be good to get some input while we were still uploading documents and in the middle of the project.


I have five suggestions

1. Each paper have a last section named "Specific Discussion Points". I am not advocating that discussions on other points be totally disallowed, but am proposing this to streamline the discussion so that it reaches someplace (or places).

2. This is a continuation of (1) above. The final summing up should, in addition to a general comment on the paper and the response, also include a pointwise tying up.

3. Folksonomy is OK, but it does not seem to be mature enough to be self managed. Tag proliferation has to be allowed to accommodate different contexts and cultures. But there does not seem to be an accepted system for managing folksonomies like the ones organized taxonomies have. One of the recent successes of taxonomy, namely the taxonomies used with XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language) across the world, is essentially meant to get rid of the mess created by diverse folksonomies created by the accounts and audit community. Folksonomy tags should be retirable with retrospective effect, for them to be useful over time in specific contexts.

4. Since there seems to be a lot of diversity, and that is good too, in the topics, can each paper start with a backgrounder which gives links to easily available introductory material on that topic? That could help in bringing in more persons into the discussion. To make it more practical, the summaries of papers given at the beginning of the semester should include the backgrounder.

5. Discussions should be allowed for five days on each paper, two papers being opened on the Monday of every week. Saturday looks to be a fairly barren day anyway.



Milind, Thank you for your


Thank you for your suggestions concerning how we can improve the way we run the newsletter, and we will discuss them the next time the CCCE meets. We are also putting together a short survey that we will ask people to respond to at the end of this Newsletter, and will take your thoughts into consideration when we create it.

As for how we are using the taxonomy/folksonomy.  I think this is a very limited use and we really want to exclude anyone from tagging words who is not a member of the chemical education community, or more appropriately, not involved with this community. I realize that may limit "connections" that someone outside this community might generate, but I also want the tags to reflect the lexicon of this community.

One of our clear objectives though, is simple to bring the archives back to life.  As some people realize, we lost our old domain name several years ago and many of the old papers became inaccessable. I take responsibility for that. I had no idea we were paying for a domain when I became chair of the CCCE, and when I realized it, the site was down, and we would be paying more than I thought we should.  So we moved ConfChem to the domain of the Division, and that way, in theory, they would be preserved as the members of this committee come and go. But we concurrently went from hosting them as plain html files to a web 2.0 content management system (Drupal) and changed the way we ran the ConfChems.  You could call it ConfChem 2.0, and we had to experiment around a bit to get our bearings on how to do all of this.

The thing is, bringing the old papers back to life means more than making them available, and I think the folksonomy brings new relevance to old papers. I am actually very excited about how this may work out, and hopefully, we will be able to tag future papers as we comment on them, and provide the community with a new way of connecting published works within this collection. I mean this newsletter represents the writings and works of the use of computers in chemical education for the past 28 years, and I think it would be of great value for us to be able to see how this has evolved.

Seeking your Input

The CCCE would like input on ways we can improve this Newsletter. Please share with us your thoughts as we are creating a new site with features like tagging. But also, we want your input on how we run this in general.  Should we have a reading day?  A reading week?  Should we leave the papers posted for a couple of weeks, and then start discussions? When is the best time to run the Newsletter?  During the semester?  Over vacations?

I went and created a username/password of ccce/ccce that I will keep active on the development site while this paper is being discussed, http://confchem.ccce.us/. This will allow you to tag items.  I am not sure what will happen if more than one person logs in at the same time, but I can set you up with your own account on the development site if you like. We would definitely value your input after this paper's discussion closes. Please note, this is not the site for the Newsletter, and it will not be effected by tomorrows planned server maintenance.  But early next year we plan to transfer this site over to the production servers (divched.org) and anything you tag now, will be transferred then, and available to the community.

We would also be very grateful if you could provide your input on new features we are trying to develop, like the sortable article list and the folksonomy interfaces, http://confchem.ccce.us/confchem-article-list


Bob Belford

Tagging items

So how does one actually tag items?  I logged into http://confchem.ccce.us with usename ccce and password ccce (was that correct?).  But I am not sure what to do next.  Is the objective to apply pre-existing tags as filters or to create new tags? (Probably I am just confused.  I'm still struggling with all this new stuff).

Use of Tags

In my initial reply I accidentally created a new comment, which is here:

I'd like to clarify something a bit more.  The only new thing you see when you log in is the "Tags" option (next to the "View" option). If you do not log in, you see neither option, just the "view", but the top three links of the "ConfChem Navigation" menu give you access to the tag cloud (right frame of those links).

So you need to login to add tags, but do not need to log in to use tags. In a sense, by using the tag filter, anyone can generate their own little customized ConfChem style presentation, based on papers from multiple ConfChems and Newsletters. That is my objective. So if you want a presentation of papers on "green chemistry" and "visualizations", and there are papers that contain both of those tags, you would get them (and their discussions - when possible), all without ever logging in.