Scientist who synthesized the active ingredient in the powerful psychedelic salvia also broke ground on open access publishing

Salvia divinorum is a plant that is legal in most of the USA and the world, a uniquely powerful psychedelic whose effects are as short-lived (5-10 minutes from first onset to the end of the experience) as they are profound (users generally need to have a "sitter" nearby because they lose control over their bodies and perceptions).

The active ingredient in salvia is salvinorin A, a molecule of intense interest given its short effective life in the human body, profound effects on human perception, and the very narrow and specific range of receptors it targets, which holds out promise for use of the molecule to treat addiction, chronic pain and other conditions (here's an excellent research presentation on the state of the science of salvinorin A).

Synthesizing salvinorin A is a hard job, because the molecule is intrinsically unstable. Last summer, synthetic organic chemist Ryan Shenvi presented his work synthesizing a modified version of salvinorin A and then uploaded a pre-publication paper about that work, committing two breaches of practice at once: releasing a paper prior to its journal publication and synthesizing a molecule while modifying it.

In so doing, he beat another team that had been working on salvinorin A synthesis to the punch — though they had submitted a paper for publication before he did, his paper made the news before theirs, and they appeared as something of an also-ran.

It's a fascinating story, both because of what it says about the future of this weird, amazing molecule, and what it says about the dominance of the for-pay journals, who have been relentless in their attacks on open access.

It's a debate that has played out in other fields over the last few years. With traditional journals, the lengthy peer review process makes for a lot of waiting around. Preprint puts speed over that safeguard; chemRxiv vets uploaded studies for potential ethical problems, but it's not rigorously edited or peer reviewed. Which makes some scientists uncomfortable.

That and traditional journals like exclusivity—a paper might not drop with a bang if it's been available publicly on a preprint server for a month. The Journal of the American Chemical Society, for instance, says it won't accept papers that have already appeared in preprint. Really, though, preprint isn't meant to be a replacement for traditional journals. It's a tool for scientists to get their findings out quick while they work to get themselves into a big-name journal.

There's precedent here from Weiss' journal Nano because it deals in physics as well as chemistry, so it's accustomed to arXiv, which has been around for 25 years now. "I think because we already had that experience of working in fields where arXiv was alive and thriving," Weiss says, "maybe it's been easier for us to digest than some other journals in the field that have this tradition of, You know, we're going to see it first or we're not going to publish it."

Salvia Leads Chemists on a Psychedelic Existential Journey [Matt Simon/Wired]