My Advice to BreslowApril 29th, 2012
Since I’ve already given my advice to the ACS regarding how to deal with the space-dinosaur situation, it is only fair that I offer some thoughts to Ronald Breslow as well. Once faced with the facts, JACS pretty much had no other option than to pull the paper. In contrast, Breslow has a variety of options to pursue. Here is what I think is his best course of action:
(1) Stop talking, for the moment. While the “space dinosaur” aspect of the story has gone through the news cycle, the self-plagiarism aspect of the story is only just beginning. By giving comments to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that asks for an interview, you are only perpetuating the agony by ensuring a steady trickle of fresh, negative stories.
To make matters worse, there is probably significant bad news on the horizon: JACS is either going to verify that you violated their ethical guidelines, or there is likely to be considerable backlash from the same group of people who exposed the duplication in the first place. Your reputation is going to depend on integration of the area under the curve of bad-news vs. time. The bad news is coming, the only thing you can do to improve the outcome is to minimize the time that these stories are in the spotlight. You want all of the bad news to crash down like a ton of bricks, then once that happens, you can immediately start re-stacking them.
(2) Get a feel for JACS‘ timeline and act in concert with the journal. The ball is pretty much in JACS‘s court, as they have acknowledged starting an investigation. I have to imagine that this investigation will involve Breslow in some way, so these interactions can be used to get a sense for what is going to happen when.
(3) Try to shape the outcome by admitting some wrongdoing. The case at hand is probably a textbook example of duplication/self-plagiarism. Stuart Cantrill‘s highlighter pen and JACS‘s swift action in pulling the paper—rather than leaving it up—verify this assertion. I think the best way to mitigate the damage is not by fighting everything tooth-and-nail, but by admitting some fault and arguing that the offense is not that serious. You see this behavior all the time in the sports world. In soccer, you’ll see a defender raise his hand after a nasty tackle to admit the foul and wrongdoing in an attempt to avoid further punishment (i.e., getting booked). In poker, players with bad hands will purposely lead out with a small bet in hopes that the other player will just call the defensive bet instead of betting more.
Here, Breslow might volunteer to retract the paper and issue a public apology to avoid worse punishment.
(4) Publicly embrace whatever punishment JACS doles out. This step goes hand-in-hand with the previous advice, but whereas step #3 is designed to influence the punishment, this piece of advice is designed to influence public opinion. Those that see the JACS paper as a violation of ethics will want to be sure that Breslow is punished and learns his lesson. If no such punishment is publicly acknowledged, there will always be questions over whether Breslow was able to “get away” with it.
This perceived lack of justice is the main problem that Dalibor Sames’ reputation has suffered in the wake of the Bengu Sezen scandal. Sezen was exposed and punished to what is probably the fullest extent possible. Her reputation is absolute garbage. On the other hand, it appears that Sames has suffered no significant punishment for his role as a careless manager. He ignored the warnings of several of his subordinates—and in some cases, fired them rather than pursuing the matter—yet it appears that he never lost funding, and wasn’t sanctioned by JACS or Columbia. To my knowledge, he’s never spoken publicly on the matter. Perhaps as a result of this perceived injustice, Sames is a pariah in academic chemistry. When was the last time you saw him invited to a department to give a talk?
In contrast, look at the case of Leo Paquette, who was accused of plagiarizing information from a grant application. Paquette, while maintaining that he never intentionally stole ideas, accepted the (significant) punishment of renouncing all government funding for several years. Whether or not he did the crime, he certainly “did the time”. As a result, he enjoys a rather positive—albeit, slightly tarnished—reputation among organic chemists.
(5) Polish your story—hopefully, the truth. I have no idea what the truth is in this case, but I can see several possible stories that don’t strike me as particularly evil. For instance, Breslow could say he was very proud of this work with homochirality and wanted to share it with an audience larger than that of Tet. Lett. He might have felt the special issue of Isr. J. Chem. and the perspective that JACS asked him to write were perfect opportunities to showcase this work. He could continue to say that while he did cut-and-paste material from the original paper, he thought that he had made enough changes to the manuscript to avoid self-plagiarism. Next, Breslow could admit to making a mistake, in hindsight, and apologize for it. This story would pave the way to voluntarily retracting the JACS paper to free the journal from being held liable for copyright violations…etc.
(6) Sit for an in-depth interview when the punishment comes out. Once again, the best way to handle the impending storm is to get it over with quickly. Pull the Band-Aid right off. You can do this by sitting for one, high-profile, definitive interview. Every subsequent interview request could then be directed to the original one. You see this strategy employed all of the time in politics and showbiz: a star will get into trouble, then sit with Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, or Larry King for an hour-long broadcast that gets millions of viewers. Examples: Chris Brown, Pete Rose, Michael Jackson, Mel Gibson.
Don’t fall into the trap of giving an in-depth interview to a young science reporter or, even worse, a hard-nosed blogger. These people have no name-recognition and the interview won’t be regarded as the definitive interview. You are looking for a Barbara Walters—someone well known who will ask the hard questions (that you expect), but let you tell your story. You do not want a Tim Russert—someone that will work to move through a laundry list of specific questions designed to probe every contentious detail about the issue at hand. The obvious reporter to target is C&EN‘s Rudy Baum. He is the head honcho at the magazine, and he’s already assigned himself the story for C&EN. Since C&EN is the official organ of the ACS, I don’t think the magazine will want to do anything to soil the reputation of Breslow, JACS, or the office of ACS President. Just look at how Baum’s story reporting the withdrawal of the JACS paper ended:
Breslow is a titan in the chemistry enterprise and a major figure at ACS. He served as the society’s president in 1996 and was the recipient of the society’s highest award, the Priestley Medal, in 1999. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the National Medal of Science (1991).
That’s a pretty fair/nice way to close a story about the start of an investigation about self-plagiarism.
(7) Keep your chin up. Remember that you’ve got strong records of achievement in research and service to chemistry. The community appreciates your many, many contributions; it just wants to ensure that all of us are held to the same ethical standards. You’ll move past this episode, as you have similar sticky situations in the past.