Noyori on Ethical Conduct in Chemistry

January 9th, 2013

Breslow CEN Dinosaur Fake CoverA kind reader of the blog brought my attention to a piece of commentary in Advanced Synthesis & Catalysis titled “Ethical Conduct in Chemical Research and Publishing”. The lead author of the piece is none other than Ryoji Noyori, who won a share of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in asymmetric catalysis. Noyori is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of the journal, while the second author is the Editor of the journal.

I agree with a lot of what Noyori has to say, because a lot of it is obvious:

The research supervisor – group leader, principal investigator (PI), however he or she is called – is the main person to pass on the tradition of science to the next generation. Senior scientists have an obligation to instill strong ethical and moral values in their progeny…However, the education of graduate students should not be the sole responsibility of the research supervisor; each department should have a collective responsibility for the education of its students and for the activities of its professors. It is regrettable to see that in many departments the professors each form their individual kingdoms with a minimum of departmental cohesion.


Fraud is hard to detect in a manuscript and is usually discovered only after publication, if at all. This should lead to retraction of the article.

Yep. The majority of the six-page article is full of statements like the above, which are pretty hard to argue against. But every now and again, Noyori makes some statements that strike me as mostly right, but a little odd:

When the careers of students depend entirely on the relationship to their professor, and only successful results count, then there is a large temptation for abuse on both sides.

I’ll agree that this relationship is very important, but to the point of using the word “entirely”? That’s not an assertion I would make.

It is hard to understand the logic behind committing fraud in spite of the apparent short-term gains. Scientific progress is achieved on the basis of previously published results. Fraudulent results cannot obtain a place of significance in the advancement of science, because they are not reproducible. Therefore, scientific fraud is a suicidal act for the career of the perpetrator. Integrity is an essential requirement for conducting scientific research.

This statement strikes me as naive. I think I understand many of the reasons why people commit fraud, just as I can understand why someone would murder someone else. In both cases, these reasons do not justify the crime, but there is still reasoning and logic at play.

Now, on to two passages that greatly interested me:

Another form of self-plagiarism is to cut and paste large segments of text from previous publications. The case of the Breslow publications offers important insights into the question of self-plagiarism. Ronald Breslow is one of the most highly respected chemists alive, and has made an enormous contribution to chemistry in his distinguished career of over 50 years. He published three personal review articles on the origins of homochirality. Many people are irritated by attacks on Breslow, since it is the right of every scientist to repeat their own ideas in different contexts, especially in talks or review articles. Indeed Breslow was unaware of any misconduct, since he has specifically made changes so as not to infringe on copyright laws. Nevertheless, the invited Perspective in JACS was withdrawn “at the request of the author due to similarity to his previously published reviews..” This is a difficult matter. “Self-plagiarism” can in fact be highly beneficial to the community. Eminent scientists travel worldwide and present almost the same lecture to many audiences; the goal is to have the largest possible dissemination of the ideas and results. The bottom line in publishing similar overviews should be whether it serves the advancement of science by reaching different and larger audiences. Copyright law needs to be respected, but other solutions in the interest of science should be sought to facilitate the widest dissemination of seminal reports. In conclusion, the repetition of a sentence or parts of a sentence is not considered plagiarism or self-plagiarism.

I cannot believe that the top editors of a journal are going to the mat for Breslow’s duplicate publication. I think most editors view the case as a classic example of self-plagiarism that is wholly unacceptable. “Self-plagiarism” is not simply restating your own ideas; it is lifting identical or minimally-altered pieces of writing for re-publication in a new article without clearly indicating that this material was published previously. The reasons self-plagiarism is unethical are: (i) it wastes resources, like the financial resources of the second journal and the time of those scientists assigned to referee material that has already been refereed once before, (ii) it traps the second journal in an adverse legal position with respect to copyright law, and (iii) it uses deception to “game” a system where publications are viewed as the principal metric of accomplishment in research.

And there is a huge difference between giving scientific talks and publishing scientific papers. Justin Bieber can perform “Baby” to audiences in Ottawa, Newark, and Richmond, but he can’t get away with publishing the song over-and-over on subsequent albums under different labels. Noyori’s opinion here is nothing short of bizarre.

If Noyori truly feels that “self-plagiarism can…be highly beneficial to the community”, I suggest that everyone submit self-plagiarized material for duplicate publication in Adv. Synth. Catal. I think he and the other editors will quickly change their tune.

Finally, here is the editors’ requisite thumbing-of-the-nose to blogs:

The Internet has become a major medium of communication in research and is contributing to the democratization of the global science community. Society is conditioned to consider that the printed word is valid; unfortunately, this trust cannot be extended to the Internet. Scientific results put onto the Internet without peer review have a serious problem with credibility. The American Chemical Society guidelines contain a section on publishing outside the scientific literature, but more comprehensive ethical guidelines are needed for publishing in the social media. More harmful is the publishing of irresponsible criticism and slander, even in the blogs of highly respected journals (see the Comments to the C&EN article on Breslow, cited below). Ethical guidelines condemn personal criticism and yet one often sees unscientific accusations, rumor or innuendo in the Internet. The mass media tend towards sensationalism and are not considered scientific, but irresponsible personal accusations on the Internet in an alleged scientific context are damaging to the individuals and to the entire image of science.

What a surprise: the editors of an expensive peer-reviewed journal denouncing the prospect of publishing scientific research for free on the Internet. Also, I love how they criticize “irresponsible criticism” on blogs without specifically citing what they find wrong. They only drop a numbered reference to the web page for the Breslow duplication story at C&EN, which has a comments thread that is heavily moderated by the editors. Someone please identify the slanderous comments that Noyori thinks are so irresponsible. Is this the best he could do?

19 Responses to “Noyori on Ethical Conduct in Chemistry”

  1. Kiwi Says:

    Is this the same tax-dodging Ryoji Noyori who is commenting on ethical behavior?

  2. VSaggiomo Says:

    Some comments on the comments:

    “When the careers of students depend entirely on the relationship to their professor, and only successful results count, then there is a large temptation for abuse on both sides.”

    Maybe entirely is too strong, i agree. But I don’t agree on “both sides”. Usually the PI has already in a good position and he wants to publish good papers and he is going to stress the PhD student to do so. On the other hand the stressed student see the fraud as an easy escape because in a few years he will probably not be in the academia anymore.

    Self-plagarism… First of all it was a review and a perspective, and in my mind it doesn’t count as self-plagiarism. We are not talking about research papers, but about ideas that can be developed and improved. And I do agree that the more you spread your ideas the better it is. Pay attention that I’m talking about ideas and not research paper. Self-plagiarism or duplicate(or triplicate in some cases) papers are definitely to avoid, agree with you.

    On the last part I don’t know. I have still mixed feelings on the subject. I love the open idea of science, but it can end up in a kind of far west…. (like not so long ago wikipedia)

  3. Chemjobber Says:

    I wonder (in all sincerity) if there was something lost in translation, esp. w/the “entirely”?

  4. See Arr Oh Says:

    I read the whole post, Paul, and summarized it as so: “Famous Nobelist says other famous chemists get a plagiarism pass; also, damn you kids and your blogs! [shakes fist]”

    Sigh…Only on the internet.

  5. Paul Says:

    Royce Murray and Noyori should start a blog.

  6. Unstable Isotope Says:

    I agree with VSaggiomo, “both sides” is quite odd. Profs have way way more power over the career of students than vice versa. To me, it sounds like Noyori is saying Breslow is famous and has done a lot, so what he’s doing is ok. Plus, what do you nasty kids know?

  7. PMP Says:

    Another curious statement in this paper is the following:

    “A second example is that researchers often overly rely on computation in interpreting a reaction mechanism. The conclusions derived from an unrealistic assumption are far from truth, and confuse and mislead the community. It is worse than nothing. The problem is not the quality of the calculations, but arises from the abuse of a powerful tool by inexperienced researchers. We all know that organic synthesis with wrong starting materials will never result in the correct target product. We should appreciate solid experimental evidence more than frivolous computations. This prevailing trend is harmful to the community.”

    While I do understand what the authors were aiming at – that relying on computations alone without cross-checking the results by experimentation may produce misleading results – the tone of the entire paragraph is way too harsh towards the computational chemistry community. Indeed, “solid experimental evidence” is better than “frivolous computations”, but what about “frivolous or poorly conducted experimental evidence” vs. “rigorous computational studies”? Furthermore, the way this comment was written makes it sound as if the referees and the editors are generally doing a poor job in distinguishing between solid and shaky evidence, a puzzling statement from an Editor of a major journal in the field…

  8. Michelle Francl Says:

    I note that both my scientific passions get chewed up in this article: computational chemistry and writing about science (in a blog, on the Internet). Has my career been in vain?

  9. Stu Says:

    Thought I’d quickly drop by before the day job kicks in (again)… just to say that Paul nails it with this line:

    “If Noyori truly feels that “self-plagiarism can…be highly beneficial to the community”, I suggest that everyone submit self-plagiarized material for duplicate publication in Adv. Synth. Catal. I think he and the other editors will quickly change their tune.”

    @Michelle – we love you!

  10. Unemon Says:

    There’s a difference between self-plagiarizing reviews and results. You cannot present data twice as if it’s new the second time. In a review it’s not a big deal to copy lines from your previous review. You guys need to get over it.

  11. RB Woodweird Says:

    Justin Bieber does sing the same song over and over, just with minor changes. And most of us know academics who publish the same thing over and over, making slight changes to the reagent or substrate and running exhaustive examples. Still the same recognizable tune.

  12. Hap Says:

    You did see Stu’s analysis, right? It was hard to find the lines that Breslow hadn’t copied from his previous review.

    I suspect journals will be less willing to be tolerant of copying from authors’ previous documents, since they will probably have to pay the price in copyright infringement suits. I don’t know how tolerant readers ought to be, either – I’d feel ripped off with a $10 paperback if it was simply a rehash of old work, much less a carbon copy, and at $32 an article, I’m pretty sure most people would feel ripped off reading a cut-and-paste job. In no case are lawyers or readers (or journals) likely to make the distinction between new results and review material. If you’re taking credit for new work (by a line on your CV or cash in hand), then the work actually ought to be new.

    Perhaps you ought to try copying some material for your new review and then tell your advisor or department chair that they ought to get over it. Please tell us how well that works out.

  13. Unemon Says:

    You don’t pay the journals, your university library does. They will subscribe to the journals regardless if one paper is a rehash of another. If you’re an individual paying $32 for a single paper, you’re getting ripped off regardless of whether it’s a rehash.

  14. Hap Says:

    They take up space, no? Someone has to edit and review them, and servers have to hold them. In addition, even though most journals aren’t page count limited. the top ones probably are effectively (there’s only so much top 10%/5%/1%/etc.), so rehash articles displace other articles that might actually have been original and useful. Someone pays, and gets little for it. I don’t know why that’s good for anyone other than the CV-padding author (and perhaps the journal, depending on if they get caught or not).

  15. Unemon Says:

    Breslow doesn’t need to pad his CV. Those journals need articles so that they can sell to libraries. They both win. And the lesser of the two journals gets to say that Breslow publishes in their journal.

  16. BlueBaron Says:

    Science published on the internet can be accompanied by all of the raw data that goes into a peer review. But there, everybody who is interested can look at it and rate the quality. We’ve seen plenty of examples of fabricated data ending up in front of peer review and making it through. It’s not surprising that one of the wizened elders of chemistry wants everything to go through wizened elders of chemistry (with a few fees off the top) before we get to read about it.

    Stuff on the internet can be updated, which is how someone should avoid self-plagarism by updating a previous review rather than wasting space on a new article that is actually made up of mostly older research.

  17. wolfie Says:

    Look, noone will win the Tour de France without doping, and nobody will win money in science without treachery.

  18. wolfie Says:

    And, you’re not the best chemistry blog. My only one.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    It sounds as if some folks think that well-known and distinguished investigators holding leaderships positions should get away with self-plagiarism or plagiarism. This line of thinking is jsut wrong. Self-plagiarism or plagiarism is indeed unethical and everyone should be held responsible regardless of whether he/she is an eminent scientist. Sometimes, insitutions and journal editors try to cover up the misdeeds of those holding leaderships positions. A case in point is a recent report ( that identifies plagiarism in the work of Dr. Ziwei Huang, Director of Upstate Cancer Institute and Chairman of Pharmacology Department at Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, New York. The report identifies that one of his papers published in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology “appears to have plagiarized from at least 8 different publications and a course material.” It seems as if Upstate Medical University has taken no action and the editors of the journal are unaware.

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