Noyori on Ethical Conduct in ChemistryJanuary 9th, 2013
A 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?