Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

RIP Carl Djerassi…and the Importance of the Nobel Prize

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

ChemBark MedallionWhenever I get a media inquiry about the annual list of odds for winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, I am always sure to emphasize that the list attempts to address who will win the Nobel, not who should win the Nobel. When reporters follow up with the question, “Well, who should win it?”, my answer is always immediate and unequivocal:

Carl Djerassi.

Djerassi’s contributions to our field are immense (1 2 3)—from synthetic organic chemistry, to natural products, to analytical chemistry and beyond. Djerassi’s signature achievement in the development of oral contraception was earth-shattering to the worlds of chemistry and medicine, and it went on to have profound implications for society at large. Norethindrone changed the world like few molecules had before it.

With Djerassi’s death at the age of 91 last Friday, I will have to come up with a new answer to the question of who should win the next Nobel Prize. Djerassi’s name now ranks among those great chemists who inexplicably never did, on a list that includes titans like G.N. Lewis and Dimitri Mendeleev, whose work remains the foundation on which chemistry is built.

These massive oversights, coupled with jaw-dropping exclusions like Gabor Somorjai in 2007, make it impossible to consider the Nobel Prize as the definitive metric for achievement in chemistry. Is it fun to get excited about? Yes. Is it a high honor? Yes. But despite the massive hype and public reverence surrounding the Prize, it is nothing more.

When someone like Carl Djerassi dies after having had 40 years to be recognized, I simply cannot take the Swedish Academy seriously. With these omissions, made all the more heinous when juxtaposed against a “mistake” like 1996, the Academy continues to chisel away at the institution that is the Nobel. If they keep it up, nobody is going to care much about the Prize in 100 years, because others—more lavish and/or respected—are bound to come along and surpass it in the same way that the once vaunted prizes of horse racing or the NIT championship are now afterthoughts on the modern sports scene.

Last Friday marked the death of another piece of Alfred Nobel’s legacy to honor scientists who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind”. For surely, how could any serious list of this sort fail to include Carl Djerassi?

UCLA Professor Patrick Harran Strikes Deal with Prosecutors

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

BulldoodyPatrick Harran, the UCLA professor who faced four felony counts in connection with the death of Sheri Sangji in a laboratory fire, has struck a deal with prosecutors that allows him to avoid charges in exchange for a $10,000 fine, 800 hours of community service, and running a lab free of safety violations. So long as Harran completes his end of the terms of the agreement, he will avoid trial and have an untarnished criminal record.

What a relief!

As an assistant professor in charge of a research lab, I could not be happier with this outcome. I have a lot of stuff to worry about, and ensuring the safety of my students cannot be allowed to get in the way of important things like finding consulting gigs, collecting awards, traveling to international conferences, and stealing ideas for grants. All of those OSHA rules are meant for industry, not academia. The bar for what passes as safe in academic labs is clear, and people who want to work under moderately safe conditions know better than to go to graduate school. The government simply can’t expect me to be responsible for what happens in my lab, which is well over 50 feet from my office and not even the same direction as the restroom. I’m happy to buy enough safety goggles and almost enough lab coats to outfit my students, but the rest is up to them. If Aldrich has written a technical note on their hazardous experiment, my students know not to bother me.

The most important aspect of the Harran deal is how it extends the long, proud tradition of excusing PIs of any professional responsibility for their work. Society recognizes that professors are only supposed to have good things happen to them. We get the lion’s share of credit for papers, not the students or postdocs. We get the big salaries, not the students or postdocs. We get the awards, not the students or postdocs. On the flip side, professors must be protected from negative consequences at all costs. If an accident happens in one of our labs, that’s the students’ fault. If multiple papers from one of our labs contain fabricated data, that’s the students’ fault as well. Clearly, professors are not responsible for supervising their groups for integrity or safety. We know this because Dalibor Sames and Patrick Harran are still in charge of their labs. I applaud Columbia and UCLA for recognizing that you can’t discriminate against professors for trivial things like irresponsibility and incompetence. Anyway, it’s the competent professors you need to watch—lightning never strikes twice, right?

Of course, I realize that there should be some consequences when something truly horrible happens. In these situations, professors must arrange for perfunctory punishments that allow all of the parties charged with oversight to save face. That’s what we saw here: UCLA threw some money at a scholarship in the victim’s name and at establishing a safety program it should have had in the first place. Personally, Harran was forced to donate money to the hospital where his student died. Incidentally, I think $10,000 was way too much; the man only earns $301,000 a year. How is he going to make ends meet with just $291,000? At least Harran’s lawyers were clever in how they disguised the 800 hours of community service as a major inconvenience instead of court-mandated preparation for the Broader Impacts section of Harran’s next NSF proposal. Killing two birds with one stone is exactly why good lawyers get paid the big bucks.

In all seriousness, I think the deal agreed to by prosecutors is a grave injustice, but one that comes as no surprise in today’s legal system. Without any changes to the material facts of the case, how does the DA go from charging someone with four felony counts to striking a deal that allows Harran to have a spotless record with a payment, community service, and actually doing his job of running a lab free of safety violations? Note that this was not a plea bargain; Harran pleaded guilty to nothing—not a misdemeanor, or even an infraction.

The game plan of Harran’s legal defense was quite effective: delay, delay, and delay. They gummed up the works with continuance after continuance and motion after motion. In the end, it appeared the prosecutors were willing to do anything just to clear the case. I mean, was this deal what the prosecutors were holding out for all of these years? What makes it all the more worse is that the original deal called for 400 rather than 800 hours of community service. The judge had to step in and double it.

My heart goes out to Sheri’s family for their loss. While I think our legal system has denied them justice, my hope is that the field of chemistry does not forget what happened to her. I hope UCLA’s reported new-and-improved safety culture persists, and I hope the rest of the world of academic chemistry also strives to do a much better job regarding safety than it has in the past. At the very least, I can guarantee you that Sheri’s death has had an indelible, positive effect my approach to safety and how I manage my lab and students.

 

For more coverage: C&EN’s Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice have done a fantastic service for the community in covering the case, and Chemjobber has been curating links to coverage on his site.

Update: First-Year Professor Craziness

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

ChemBark Moving to St. LouisHello, friends.

Apologies for the continued radio silence, especially in light of the fact that several instances of data manipulation have recently been exposed through “corrections” published in a variety of journals. The beautiful thing about having a blog is that you can update it whenever you want. Sometimes, life happens and blogging takes a back seat…

I continue to fly by the seat of my pants as a first-year assistant professor. One of the main differences about moving on from life as a grad student and postdoc to life as a professor is the tremendous weight of responsibility involved. If you put something off as a grad student or postdoc, you are usually just inconveniencing yourself. But when you fall short in your duties as a professor, the problem is compounded by the multitude of students who are affected. While a variety of to-dos may arise, it is simply untenable to show up to lecture unprepared, because you’re not just wasting your time, you’re wasting the time of 30+ students. And when you delay getting something set up in the lab, you are letting your group down. I imagine the feeling of being a new professor is similar in many respects to being a new parent—there is so much to do and so little time, but if you don’t get all of your work done, bad things will happen (not to you, but to innocent young’uns for whom you care deeply).

I’m teaching Organic Chemistry II this semester, which is proving to be enjoyable. Once again, it is somewhat stressful to have to create a brand new lecture every 48 hours, but I’ve got a great group of students to keep me going. In lab, my research group is growing and things are continuing to take flight. Outside of lab, I got married a month ago and that was splendid. As luck would have it, a few days after we returned to St. Louis, our high-rise apartment building experienced a massive flood because some genius left his window open over the winter break and the sprinkler lines in his room froze. The water damaged seven floors and knocked out all of the elevators in the building. Unfortunately, my wife and I live on the 11th floor. It is also unfortunate that I have a spinal cord injury that makes it difficult for me to climb stairs. So, since January 7th, I’ve been practically homeless. Some nights I sleep in my office, some nights I sleep in a hotel, some nights I invest the 90 minutes it takes for me to crawl up the 10 flights of stairs. My wife and our dog have been real troopers in this ordeal, and it sounds like one elevator might be working by the end of the week—though after four weeks of this crap, I am not holding my breath.

I hope to return to blogging more regularly soon. In parting, please enjoy a scan of a letter from my property management company to the tenants of our building. I want to vomit every time I read it.

 

clb_burst_pipe_letter

Some Fantastic Christmas Presents

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Bethany Halford and the crew at C&EN‘s Newscripts blog run an annual holiday gift guide with some cool gift ideas for chemists, but sometimes it’s more exciting to be surprised by the creativity of your family.

I got a few great chemistry presents for Christmas. The first was a Periodic Table of Magnets that I’ll put on my office door. Next, from one of my new brothers-in-law, I received a fail button in the colors of SLU that plays the sad trombone sound. I’m not sure if all of my students will appreciate this gift, so maybe I’ll keep it in an inconspicuous location. My orgo lab instructor at NYU used to have a bullseye taped to his wall captioned “hit head here”. He would point to it when students realized a silly mistake they made on a exam. I thought the sign was hilarious, but some of my classmates thought it was obnoxious.

From my other new brother-in-law, I received a copy of “How to Live Longer and Feel Better” signed by Linus Pauling. Very, very cool. Apparently, signed chemistry texts by Pauling command a much higher price tag, but I would much rather have something signed relating to Pauling’s medical quackery than chemical bonding or crystallography.

Finally, from my lovely fiancée wife, I received this:

stuffed_animal_chembark_ed

That, my friends, is total victory: a stuffed animal version of ChemBark’s mascot, Ed the Dog. I am a very lucky boy.

That’s it for the chemistry presents, but I got a bunch of other great gifts and had a wonderful wedding three days later (that will be the subject of another post). I hope everyone had as good a holiday break as I did, and best wishes for a happy and productive 2014!

Suspicious Data in a JACS Paper from 2009

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Covers of JACSOn Tuesday, the Journal of the American Chemical Society published a retraction notice for a paper titled “Bimetallic Effects for Enhanced Polar Comonomer Enchainment Selectivity in Catalytic Ethylene Polymerization” by Brandon A. Rodriguez, Massimiliano Delferro, and Tobin J. Marks (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131, 5902−5919).

The retraction notice reads:

The authors have been unable to reproduce the synthesis and spectroscopic characterization of the ethylene/acrylate copolymer described in this article. Accordingly, the authors are retracting this publication due to concerns over the validity of the aforementioned data. The authors regret any confusion that may have been created by publication of this work.

A casual reader might encounter this notice and think this is exactly how the system should work: a scientist told of a problem with his published procedure went back, attempted to repeat the work, found he couldn’t, and published a notice to inform the community.

But a closer inspection reveals that there is more to this story that the retraction notice would indicate.

ChemBark was alerted to problems with this paper in August by an astute chemist who wishes to remain anonymous. One day earlier, the source had contacted Peter Stang, the editor-in-chief of JACS, to alert the journal to abnormalities with data in the paper. ChemBark respected the wishes of the source and allowed a traditional editorial review of the paper to be completed before reporting the matter on the blog. With the publication of the retraction notice yesterday, the authors have publicized that their work is problematic. It would appear that an initial review of the paper is complete.

The authors’ wording of the retraction does not indicate specifically what was wrong with the paper, but a brief inspection of the data (including those in the Supporting Information) reveals the following abnormalities:

Figure 3: The baselines of these spectra are peculiar in that they are thick but very straight. The thicknesses and shapes of the peaks are also peculiar. Some of the tall peaks lack the wide bases you would expect of them. Finally, some of the peaks appear to have a different background (i.e., noise) and line thickness (as if they originated from a different source).

marks_retraction_figure_3

Figure 6: The baselines (i.e., noise) of the two NMR spectra appear to be identical. The peaks look irregular—like solid lines.

Figure 7: Again, some of the peaks have lines that are much thicker than the rest of the spectrum. They look unnatural.

Figure S19 (in the SI): The NMR spectra taken at various temperatures have identical noise in their baselines, which would be very, very unusual. The peaks of interest appear irregular and have different line shapes.

marks_retraction_figure_s19

Figure S21: The background of the peaks appears different from the background of the rest of the spectrum, as if the peaks were cut-and-pasted into the spectrum.

Figure S22: Same as above. The spectrum in Figure S21 and the bottom spectrum of Figure S22 appear to have the same baseline noise even though these spectra are reported to be of two entirely different compounds.

marks_retraction_figure_s22

That’s not everything that looks peculiar, but do not simply take my word for it. Go to the paper, have a look, and judge for yourself (paper, SI). ChemBark does not know why these data look the way they do, but they do look unnatural.

On Tuesday, ChemBark contacted Professors Tobin Marks (the corresponding author on the retracted paper) and Peter Stang (the Editor-in-Chief of JACS) by e-mail for comment.

A response was received on Wednesday from Alan K. Cubbage, the chief communications officer for Northwestern University. In the interest of fairness, we are reporting this e-mail its entirety:

Mr. Bracher, your inquiry to a Northwestern University professor, Tobin Marks, was referred to me, as I am the chief communications officer for Northwestern.

As you note in your email, two Northwestern University faculty members and a former Ph.D. student have retracted a publication that appeared several years ago in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The authors are Brandon A. Rodriguez, who received a Ph.D. from Northwestern in 2009, Tobin Marks, a professor of chemistry, and Massimiliano Delferro, a research assistant professor of chemistry. The article was retracted because the authors were unable to reproduce a portion of the data described in the article.

Northwestern University has established processes and procedures for reviewing issues relating to research integrity.  If concerns were to be raised regarding the data that was the subject of the retraction, the University would use those procedures in its review.  Part of those procedures, which follow the steps mandated by the federal government, is that any review remains confidential.

Thank you for your interest in Northwestern.

Best wishes,

Alan Cubbage

ChemBark also received an e-mail response from Peter J. Stang, the Editor-in-Chief of JACS. In addition to asking about the possibility of fabrication and the specific concerns listed above, we asked for his thoughts on Paul Weiss’s recent editorial in ACS Nano. Dr. Stang’s message is also copied below in its entirety, with the exception of one paragraph (that will be communicated in the next post on the blog, a follow-up to this story):

Dear Dr. Bracher:

Thank you for your communication regarding  Bimetallic Effects for Enhanced Polar Comonomer Enchainment Selectivity in Catalytic Ethylene Polymerization   authored by Brandon A. Rodriguez, Massimiliano Delferro, and Tobin J. Marks [http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/ja900257k] that has been retracted {10.1021/ja409590r] from the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).

As you know, concerns with this paper were brought to my attention in late August by an anonymous source.  Apparently this source also communicated the same concerns to you.  I am disappointed that you felt obligated to  not communicate these concerns  to JACS directly  at that time and deferred to your source to do so. Please know that JACS takes all allegations regarding the validity of  data reported in published articles very seriously.

These concerns were shared with the author and a  thorough editorial review of the article and accompanying information was conducted by JACS. The authors have retracted the article – it would not be proper to speculate on some of the questions you have posed.

(Omitted paragraph — to be discussed in next post)

ACS and its Editors adhere to the principle that the observance and practice of high ethical standards is vital to the entire scientific enterprise.  Toward that end, guidelines for a course of conduct by those engaged in the publication of chemical research, specifically, editors, authors, and manuscript reviewers are set forth in ACS Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research -http://pubs.acs.org/userimages/ContentEditor/1218054468605/ethics.pdf.

ACS Publications  is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). ACS Editors adhere to  a process established by COPE to review suspicious/fabricated data -http://publicationethics.org/files/u7140/Flowchart%20Fabricated%20B%20revised.pdf

With regard to the editorial in ACS Nano, I believe that it is well-reasoned and articulated. Public speculation and  finger-pointing before all of the facts are gathered, assessed and decided upon is, in my opinion, counterproductive.  A confidential rigorous review of allegations based on the COPE  prescribed process is the best means to determine an appropriate action in response to those allegations.  As you know, outcomes of these reviews may very well have a lasting impact on the researcher(s) involved and we need to let the facts dictate those outcomes.

Thank you for advising that ChemBark will post a story on the retractionhttp://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ja409590r. I offer my assistance in reviewing a draft and through cc have alerted  Dr. Tobin, the corresponding author.

Peter J. Stang

 

ChemBark could not locate an e-mail address for Dr. Brandon Rodriguez, the first author on the paper, but did send him a message seeking comment through Facebook. We received no reply. We will publish any comments from Dr. Rodriguez as soon as possible after they are received, and we note that he (and everyone) is welcome to post comments in the discussion thread below. We also note that the community owes a debt of gratitude to the chemist who brought these concerns to light in a professional and considerate manner.

So…here we have a case where a suspicious paper from a very high-profile group was allowed to go through the “traditional” private review process espoused by scientists like the editor-in-chief of ACS Nano rather than public review on a blog. ChemBark did nothing to interfere with the investigation or the actions of the editors at JACS.

Is this how the system should work?

 

Editor’s Notes: Neither Dr. Stang nor anyone at Northwestern were allowed to view an early draft of this story. The spectra used to construct the images above were taken from figures in J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131, 5902−5919 (paper, SI). The next post on ChemBark will deal with how the journal handled a specific aspect of this review.

ACS Expanding Open Access

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Covers of JACSIn an interesting move last week, ACS Publications announced plans to expand the number of papers it offers through open (free) access. The centerpiece of these plans is the birth of a new multidisciplinary journal, ACS Central Science, that will be 100% open access. The society has also generously agreed to open access to 365 articles of the 40,000 it publishes per year. Hooray.

It will be interesting to see how the new publication is received, because the Society already has a journal dedicated to multidisciplinary coverage of chemistry: JACS. JACS is easily the flagship of all of the Society’s journals, and one is right to question whether the new addition could hurt the JACS brand. Will ACS Central Science rise to—or exceed—the same level of prestige as JACS, or will Central Science be considered a lower-tier journal? Will the new journal siphon off quality papers from JACS, or might it become a dumping ground for manuscripts first denied publication by her sister journal?

Time will tell. It’s also worth noting that ACS Publications lifted the name of the journal from the blog network at C&EN, so perhaps some rebranding is in order over there.

In the wake of the open-access announcement, a quick Google search allowed Stu Cantrill to find a “proprietary and confidential” set of PowerPoint slides from the ACS Publications Division. In the presentation, division president Brian Crawford identifies “open access mandates” as a “challenge” to the division. Crawford goes on to outline a goal to “accommodate [the] need for authors to comply with OA mandates while maintaining the Society’s economic hold on copyright in a ‘mixed economy’.” The new journal and (very minor) expansion of open access to the rest of the journals would seem to be the Society’s answer to the problem.

And the ACS should be applauded for inching closer towards embracing wider access of the material it publishes, but these are baby steps in an industry that is evolving by leaps and bounds. In my view, the problem is not that journals charge subscription fees for access to their publications, but rather how obscene some of these fees have become. Demanding open-access to papers rubs me the wrong way, because the journals perform a valuable service for which they should be compensated. The problem is that the ACS—a nonprofit society ostensibly dedicated to the advancement of chemistry and the chemical enterprise—is acting like a capitalist publishing corporation trying to milk every last dime out of the market for scientific journals.

I feel bad for the people at ACS, because they are really headed down the river fast. The revenue from the publications division is what fuels the massive bureaucracy of the ACS, and the society is almost out of ideas to stay afloat. Instead of embracing the new direction of publishing, the ACS has fought tooth and nail to protect its old standing through ruthless management of its subscription business. They have leveraged the quality of their journals against those who employ the researchers responsible for creating this quality. Eventually, as print revenue goes down and schools start standing up to exorbitant access fees, the Society is going to have to enact deep cuts to its lavish spending on Sixteenth Street. Leadership should focus on making these cuts now instead of plunging their hands deeper into the pockets of our nation’s schools and businesses for the few remaining pennies.