Archive for the ‘Etiquette’ Category

Response to ACS Nano Editorial on Reporting Misconduct

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

ChemBark's Jackie Jaws, the Jaded JACS RefereeYesterday, the entire editorial board of ACS Nano published an editorial on how scientific misconduct should be reported and dealt with. The piece took square aim at chemistry blogs, and I’ve decided to publish my thoughts as an open letter to Paul Weiss, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal:

Dear Professor Weiss,

Yesterday, I read your editorial titled “Be Critical but Fair”, within which you and the other editors of ACS Nano outline an official policy that calls on those who discover suspicious data to report their findings directly to the journal (where they can be scrutinized privately) as opposed to blogs and social media (where the findings will be scrutinized in the open). It is with candid disdain that I write this (public) blog post to explain why I believe your policy is misguided, and ultimately, damaging to the institution it seeks to protect.

Before going further, I want to thank you for the job that you and the rest of the board perform as editors. You are the primary stewards of the chemical literature, and the gravity of this responsibility is immeasurable. I imagine there are times when the extra salary you receive as editors does not adequately compensate you for the hassles of the job. I have no taste for this stress, but I am glad there are scientists among us willing to step up to the plate. Thank you for your service.

It is because of the immense responsibility of your job as a steward of the chemical literature that the community has an interest in analyzing your actions and holding you accountable for them. Everyone makes mistakes—from lowly chemistry bloggers to exalted editors-in-chief of ACS journals—but the true tragedy of any mistake is when we fail to learn from it. Recently, the process of peer review at your journal failed in a most spectacular manner. Similar high-profile cases recently occurred at your sister journals (e.g., Nano Letters and Organic Letters), and these cases of suspected misconduct are slowly working their way through the process of editorial review.

One common vein to this recent rash of suspicious papers is that they were brought to light on chemistry blogs. As you may already know, I am the editor of one of these blogs, ChemBark. I read with particular interest the comments you directed at those who discuss misconduct on blogs and Twitter:

In science, we face a similar problem: the numbers of blogs, twitter messages, etc. in which individuals accuse others of academic fraud are steadily rising. Although one might think that this trend is generally beneficial for the purity of science, there are also obvious risks involved. Thus, in this Editorial, we outline some general behavior guidelines that we believe should be followed in such cases. In general, we need to respect our law, in dubio pro reo, which tells us not to condemn anyone before wrongdoing has been proven. It is easy to tweet a message like “X committed fraud and manipulated data”, but how do we know that this is, in fact, true, and that instead, it was perhaps person Y who sent the tweet who just wanted to damage an unwanted competitor? We are convinced that it is important to “clean” the scientific literature from manipulated data, incorrect statements, plagiarism, etc. However, when these issues arise, they need to be investigated with good scientific conduct. In other words, be critical but fair.

The implication of your last statement is that the coverage of scientific misconduct by ChemBark was unfair, and I take great offense to this postulate. I use this word because you have not cited a single shred of specific evidence in support of your statement. When has a chemistry blogger ever raised serious suspicions about the validity of data in a paper only to be later proven incorrect? If a researcher submitted a manuscript to ACS Nano that did not include even one specific piece of data in support of his conclusions, the journal would reject the manuscript immediately. It is a shame that the editors do not hold their own writing to a similar standard.

You said on Twitter that the journal has a policy never to cite blogs or tweets, as if this represents a valid defense of why you couldn’t provide specific facts in support of your ideas. First, your tweet was absolute rubbish. Stuart Cantrill, chief editor of Nature Chemistry, immediately pointed out you wrote a previous editorial that cited the Retraction Watch blog. Second, why on Earth would you have a blanket policy not to cite blogs or tweets? Is ACS Nano so recalcitrant to changes in the publishing industry that it feels ideas voiced online can be ignored or reapportioned in print without credit? I hope not.

The true reason that your editorial did not cite a single instance of a blogger’s leveling false accusations of scientific misconduct in chemistry is that no such instance exists. To imply otherwise is dishonest sophistry that does not befit the editors of a major chemistry journal. In the very rare instances where commenters make weak accusations in the discussion thread of a blog post, the comments are ignored or ridiculed. Despite the fact that the majority of popular chemistry blogs serve as places for civil and thoughtful analysis, your editorial treats blogs as shady underground operations where anonymous bloggers are free to wreak havoc on innocent scientists. Again, I challenge you to find one anonymous chemistry blogger who has broken a story of possible misconduct. I use my real name on ChemBark, and Mitch Garcia blogs under his real name at Chemistry-Blog. Your editorial could have easily cited our work in reporting suspicious papers, but of course, doing so would not have fed into your desired narrative.

Returning to your statement above, you note that “we need to respect our law, in dubio pro reo, which tells us not to condemn anyone before wrongdoing has been proven.” First off, your translation isn’t even correct. A more accurate translation is “when in doubt, favor the accused.” This tenet is why our legal system requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”, and the idea has nothing to do with trying cases in public versus private. The fact that you drew on our legal system—which is famous for holding trials that are televised or open to members of the public—to support your policy is ridiculous.

While bloggers who report cases of possible misconduct are indeed accountable to the law, that law is not “in dubio pro reo”. Rather, bloggers are accountable to defamation law. If any chemistry blogger were to raise baseless accusations of misconduct against a scientist, the blogger would open himself to (i) financial ruin from an adverse finding in a civil claim, and (ii) professional ruin in the court of community opinion. Bloggers need to be careful about what papers they choose to highlight regarding scientific misconduct, but this is no different from how newspapers and magazines need to be careful about how they handle their coverage of crime in everyday life. Do we want newspapers to abstain from reporting major crimes until a trial by jury has concluded? No, that’s crazy. There is a public interest served in covering these stories, and news outlets play a valuable role in gathering, distilling, and reporting this information. As both a chemistry blogger and a human being, I need to make sure that the facts I report regarding possible scientific misconduct are accurate and the opinions I voice are rooted in reason. That’s the bottom line, and I am accountable to the very intelligent readership of the blog and to our legal system (should someone have a problem with my coverage). No blogger can expect to level spurious claims of misconduct and get away with it.

Your editorial continues with a statement that peer review is “the best way to avoid potential academic fraud” and correctly notes that the system sometimes fails. When it does, you implore readers who find evidence of misconduct to report it directly to you so you can conduct an investigation in private. You note:

The difference between this formalized accusation investigation and reports in blogs or on Twitter is that, during the investigation, the authors of the article under dispute have a fair chance to explain, and the decisions are made by known experts in the field. After we have made our decision, all are welcome to comment on it in any blog, even if they have different opinions; this is their privilege. We strongly suggest that such comments be made without the cloak of anonymity, using real names and affiliations, so that direct and open discussion of the work can be understood by others.

I hope you can appreciate the irony of how you begin by extolling the virtues of (anonymous) peer review and conclude by haranguing bloggers and commenters to register their opinions “without the cloak of anonymity.” It takes a lot of gall to make those statements in the same line of thought.

Furthermore, the idea that the public should not be free to point out deficiencies of a (publicly) published paper without first receiving clearance from the editorial board of ACS Nano is preposterous. The notion is antithetical to the freedom of inquiry espoused by the academic community and the freedom of speech held sacred by American society. Unless I am mistaken, the “A” in ACS Nano stands for American. In America, it is not a “privilege” to comment publicly on a subject; it is a right.

Your assertion that commenting on papers is a “privilege” smacks of the elitist, opaque, closed-door, Old-Boys’-Club approach that many lament has become standard operating procedure in too many areas of chemistry. Many young chemists decry that success in our field is not so much about what you do, but whom you know. Blogs are helping to level the playing field by putting users on equal terms and democratizing the flow of information. In order for any self-governing and self-policing body to operate effectively, members of the community must stay informed about important issues they face. There can be nothing more important to chemistry than the integrity of our data; it is the foundation on which our knowledge is built. Private systems of dealing with misconduct do so in a darkness where—even if an investigation takes place on the level—those outside will always have their doubts. The open system afforded by blogs shines a light on problems so all can see, participate, and judge for themselves. While private peer review of papers may make sense to eliminate errors before they’ve been published, once a paper is out in the open, it should be fair game for comment. There is no point in dragging problems back inside only to leave a trail of blood and a multitude of questions behind.

I would like to think that the private system you espouse could also function efficiently, but recent history has proven otherwise. Despite the importance of maintaining the integrity of the scientific record, the chemical community has been routinely kept in the dark about cases of scientific misconduct. Journals, universities, and governments seem to share as little as possible about their investigations. Just look what happened with the Sezen–Sames retractions. The case involved a shocking rampage of deceit and was probably the worst scandal to hit organic chemistry of all-time, but it took a FOIA request from me and C&EN to release the details of the case to the community. How can chemists be expected to learn from and prevent scandals without knowing any of the specific details? It’s ridiculous! Do you pledge to release all of the specific details of your investigations that result in adverse findings against an author?

Journalism—including that provided on chemistry blogs—is one way to address this vacuum of information. The Founding Fathers of the United States protected the freedom of the press in our Bill of Rights because they knew that an informed electorate was essential to the efficient operation of our government and the prevention of tyranny. A (small) part of what I’ve tried to do with ChemBark is to shed light on cases of scientific misconduct in our field such that these cases can be discussed and analyzed by the wider chemical community. It is unfortunate that there exists a need for bloggers to invest some of their time in this effort, but experience has repeatedly shown that chemists cannot rely alone on journals, universities, and governments to keep them informed.

Regardless of how persistent you are in your attempt to intimidate the blog community into keeping silent, bloggers will continue raising these issues. The health of our science is at stake, and the importance of its protection far exceeds the cost of however you and your colleagues decide to punish us for openly analyzing important issues in our field.

In summary, I believe your editorial is unfair and completely misguided. I am dismayed that it represents not only your personal opinion, but the professional opinion of every member of your editorial board (who signed it). You all have perverted an embarrassing, spectacular failure of peer review at your journal into a condemnation of the community that exposed and prevented the proliferation of your error. Chemists should be outraged at your editorial, and I hope they see through this shameless attack on those of us who use blogs and social media to analyze articles rather than the traditional method of grumbling in solitude. In the future, I suggest your effort will be better spent listening to the constructive feedback bloggers and their readers provide rather than attacking them for conducting their analysis in a public forum. Finally, on Twitter yesterday, you mentioned a willingness to engage further in a discussion of the merits of open vs. closed review of problematic published papers. I do not hold grudges and would be happy to participate in whatever forum you deem appropriate. Please keep me informed if you remain interested in hosting such a symposium.

Yours in chemistry,
Paul

Doctor? No.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

bracher_office_doorI generally like to be respectful of people. Toward this end, I try my best to address people properly. You’ll find that I’m pretty liberal in using “Dr.” when addressing letters and e-mails, because you never know when someone is going to get upset at being called “Mister”. In contrast, few people seem to get upset at being called a doctor when they are not. When I was applying for faculty positions last year, I am certain I conferred Ph.D. degrees on a multitude of unsuspecting departmental staffers whose job it was to assemble the applicants’ files.

On the flip side, I have a personal aversion to signing anything as “Dr.” I always check “Mr.” when filling out forms, and I cannot bear to end an e-mail with “Dr. Bracher.” As I am now a teacher, this has established a weird dynamic where students address their e-mails to “Dr. Bracher” and I return them by signing “Paul.” I know this has got to weird the students out because I remember fretting over how to address professors when I was in college. Do you call them “Professor”, “Doctor”, or by their first name? I am pretty sure I always opted for “Professor.”

In my undergrad research lab, it was always a big deal for students when the boss started signing his e-mails to you by his first name. It was an unmistakable signal that you had made it and was regarded as a rite of passage in the lab. In contrast, my graduate and postdoc advisors were pretty much known exclusively in the lab by their first names. Of course, the undergrad-professor dynamic is much different from the dynamic with grad students and postdocs, but it’s always interesting to see how these differences manifest themselves.

Some students attempt to solve the e-mail problem by using the non-direct “Hi,” “Hey,” or “Hello there” salutation. Of course, in trying to avoid any awkwardness, this device mostly just draws attention to it. Would you walk up to a professor and address her as “Hey”? Some of my colleagues sign their e-mails to students as “Dr. D” (or similar), which is an interesting compromise between formal and informal. At the same time, it makes me question what I should address these professors when we are in front of students. Can I say “John” (as I normally would), or should I say “Dr. Doe”?

While I don’t especially care what people call me and would never be offended by any of the standard choices, I prefer “Paul”. But after two months in St. Louis, it seems as if I’m going to be “Dr. Bracher” to the vast majority of students. To friends, colleagues, and those online, I will still be “Paul”, while to family at home, I have always been “P.J.” All are fine with me.

Yesterday, I found myself reconsidering whether to sign my e-mails to students as “Dr. Bracher” to make them feel more comfortable. My conclusion was not to change—signing “Dr. Bracher” would probably make me feel just as weird as if they were to address their e-mails to “Paul”. Anyway, the decision of what to call myself has got to be one of the few privileges to which I am entitled in this new job.

–Paul

Chemistry World and Others on Dodgy Data

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

ed_baseballcap_150Hello, friends. Pardon the radio silence of late. My first semester of teaching just started at SLU and my head is already spinning. I’ll have a full post on that subject soon, but I wanted to weigh in on a few recent pieces regarding the cases of suspicious data that were reported here and elsewhere.

Reporter Patrick Walter wrote a story earlier this week for Chemistry World that examined whether blogs are appropriate venues for policing the chemical literature for misconduct. I was interviewed for—and quoted in—the story, which I feel is thorough, is balanced, and represented my positions accurately. As you might imagine, I argue that blogs are indeed appropriate venues to report suspicious data and to analyze how the community should respond to misconduct.

There are plenty of people who disagree with me—to varying extents—and the article raises their concerns as well. That is fantastic, because this is a discussion that we need to have. I am happy to engage in thoughtful debate on the subject (see posts here and here) in hopes that we, as a community, can arrive at a more efficient system for removing manipulated data from the literature and preventing their publication in the future.

Mitch André Garcia, who runs both Chemistry-Blog and the chemistry subgroup of Reddit, is one of the people who took exception to my post on the manipulated spectra in Organic Letters. Here is what he wrote on Twitter:

I’m left scratching my head here. How do the nanochopsticks he reported qualify as “acceptable to cover” for being “egregiously manipulated and…in a high impact journal” but not the erased impurities in the Anxionnat/Cossy spectra reported here? Seems pretty hypocritical. And if we can’t agree on whether these cases meet his standard for “egregiously manipulated” and “high impact”, how are we supposed to agree on anything?

My view on the matter is that anyone who wants to raise concerns publicly about data may do so, with the full realization that they are putting themselves on the line. If I raise concerns about the integrity of data in a paper, I am accountable to defamation law and the high intelligence and ethical standards of the readership here. I can only bring information to people’s attention. If that information is wrong or doesn’t support my opinions, I will be excoriated in the comments and lose credibility. If what I publish is defamatory, I will probably also be sued. The root cause of the outrage among chemists about these papers cannot be attributed to blogs; the data speak for themselves.

A few days ago, John at the blog It’s the Rheo Thing posted some cautionary advice to “activist [bloggers] that are confronting examples of fraud, plagiarism and other publishing infractions in the technical literature”:

What goes around, comes around. Many are pleased to bring the axe down hard on someone’s head, and hold as many people responsible as possible (from ALL the authors to the principal investigator and maybe even beyond that), but we need to keep in mind that publishing scientific research is a human effort and as such, will be imperfect at times even when no harm, deceit or other nefarious activity is intended. Many of the commentators screaming for blood are young professionals you have yet to run a large, established research group, but who think that they will be able to do so flawlessly in the future. Of course that won’t happen. You will have failings and shortcomings and things will go wrong despite your most fervent intent to prevent it. Most people do not have a problem with that.

Most people. But there will be plenty of others wanting your head on the same chopping block and with an added level of glee since you were responsible for bringing so many down yourself. It’s human nature. We can’t change it, this perverse desire to bring down the people bringing down others. Worse yet, these efforts to trap you may be entirely without merit. That won’t matter. “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” (Mark Twain). Your name and reputation can be placed in the same trash heap as those truly deserving it far more easily than you can ever imagine. Despite your noble intents and purity of heart.

User “juicebokz” on Reddit called John’s post “a letter to ChemBark”, and I feel compelled to weigh in with the following points:

Do you seriously think that the responsibilities of running a modestly popular blog don’t weigh on me? Do you think that I don’t consider whether I am treating the subjects of these sorts of posts fairly? These posts are not aimed at destroying scientists; they are aimed at protecting science. I do not take joy in the downfall of others, but I am not going to let a miscreant’s potential downfall prevent me from discussing a topic that I feel is important. Should any researchers be “brought down” for data fabrication, I will not be the person responsible for bringing them down. They will have been the people responsible for their own downfall.

And I am by no means a perfect person. Everyone makes mistakes and does things of which they are not proud. The point is that you have to pay for your mistakes, then dust yourself off and go about living a productive life. Should anyone gather the motivation to search through my past, or present, they’re going to find stuff that will embarrass me…but they are not going to find any fabrication of data.

As for drawing attention to co-authors who very likely did not actively participate in the fabrication of data, I still stand by the position that authors must share the responsibility for the content of their papers. “Share” does not mean “share equally”, but all authors should at least read through their papers and keep an eye out for things that are obviously wrong. When you are a corresponding author, ensuring the integrity of the data in your papers must be one of your priorities. If you think I’m alone in this view, please go back and read Smith’s editorial in Organic Letters. Any punishment doled out regarding fabricated data in a paper should be proportional to (i) one’s active involvement in the fabrication and (ii) one’s responsibilities as a conscientious scientist and/or manager. These responsibilities should be the subject of more discussion among chemists.

Finally, does anyone really think I am helping my career by reporting on scientific misconduct? Do you have any idea how uncomfortable it is to send e-mails to the editor-in-chief of a high-impact journal in my field asking for comment about how he’s going to deal with manipulated data in a paper written by one of his associate editors? Was it lost on people that Smith’s response to my inquiry was addressed “Dear Bracher”? It’s certainly not the most cordial of salutations. I asked a follow-up question by e-mail and was not given the courtesy of a reply.

I don’t like these sorts of awkward interactions, but asking hard questions is part of doing a thorough job of reporting, so I’ll just bite the bullet. I can only hope these interactions don’t come back to hurt me down the road, but that’s a possibility. At the end of the day, I would love not to have to write about scientific misconduct because (i) chemists have stopped doing it or (ii) universities, journals, and government have created a good system for dealing with it.

Now, how do we make that happen?

Free Food and Germaphobia

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

I’ve never thought of myself as a germaphobe, but a recent conversation has made me reconsider. While I have no problems touching doorknobs, shaking hands, or using public restrooms, there has always been one thing that has grossed me out: the trays of free food commonly found at social events in grad school.

I have never understood the excitement sparked in chemistry departments by free food. I had friends in grad school who would walk halfway across campus because they heard a rumor that there might be two-hour-old Chinese food up for grabs. I saw labmates in college abscond from parties with entire pizza pies when they could easily have bought a slice for $1.50 at the pizzeria across the street. Yeah, grad students and postdocs aren’t typically paid that well, but my stipend never seemed so small as to merit dropping everything for a plate of cold pad thai only minutes away from being tossed in the garbage. I wish I could feel the same sense of accomplishment as the people who seem to live for free food.

The fact that the food is free is not what turns me off, it’s the presentation. See for yourself. Here is a video from one of the Christmas parties I attended in grad school:

Yes, I exaggerate, but is slopping pigs that far off from what takes place at departmental buffets? In both cases: (i) food is dispensed in massive aluminum troughs, (ii) you can never identify the food in the troughs with certainty, and (iii) people are packed so tightly around the troughs that it is impossible for the food not to become contaminated. It’s also fun when the party is held outdoors and a swarm of insects runs for cover whenever someone picks up the spoon for the baba ghanoush. Yuck.

What brought all of this up? At a recent party, I was criticized by some lab mates for my failure to partake of the free food, and I responded by sharing my thoughts above. I also reminded them of an event at a recent group meeting, where a lab mate of ours (i) ate a handful of Cheetos, (ii) proceeded to clean his hands by sucking the orange gunk off of each finger, then (iii) inserted his hands back in the communal bag for a second helping. As I watched this atrocity unfold over the course of five minutes, I wanted to scream out in horror. I settled for sharing looks of abject disgust with three other people who also had a front-row seat to this sideshow. So, allow me to apologize in advance for being antisocial in not feeding from loosely patrolled communal sources of food. Instead, I will gladly pay $5 to be disappointed by a foot-long B.M.T. from Subway, in peace.

In the wake of this anti-trough debate, I tried to think of other examples that might lend credence to the argument that I am an OCD germaphobe. I came up with one thing that I don’t think is too bad, but is worth sharing since it involves chemistry. When cleaning my bathroom, I insist on using a cleaning product with bleach. I really don’t think that surfactants alone can get the job done—you need a hardcore oxidant to get in the game and annihilate germs. With that said, in the past, I have paid the price for this cleaning preference by ruining a fair number of clothes when they’ve brushed against a surface with residual bleach.

My eventual solution was simple. Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to mix cleaning products that contain bleach with those that contain ammonia because you will produce chlorinated amine gases that are toxic. Taking advantage of these reactions, after wiping down a surface with bleach, I’ll make sure to wipe it down with Windex to quench any residual hypochlorite. Is this routine obsessive? Possibly, but it’s been a long time since I’ve ruined a shirt from my fantastically expensive wardrobe. And the importance of these savings cannot be underestimated. If I’m not going to take advantage of free food, I’ve got to find ways to save money elsewhere.

The Unwritten Rules of Chemistry Seminars

Friday, February 11th, 2011

In the discussion that followed the arsenic-for-lunch post, commenter CR and I got into a spirited debate about the rules of etiquette for scientific presentations.  It was my contention that it is considered socially unacceptable to ask long strings of questions during seminars, while CR insisted that there’s nothing wrong with it.  I think there are many unwritten rules that pertain to seminars, and I promised to get back to the subject in due course.  Earlier this week, a post by The Unlikely Grad Student (TUGS) titled “Notes to Seminar Speakers” reminded me to finish what I started.

I’m going to focus on social norms and questions of etiquette rather than how to prepare and deliver a scientific talk.  This guide on how to give a research presentation is a good start, and I particularly like UIUC chemist Ken Suslick’s seminar on seminars.  Moving on…

There are at least four types of stakeholders in attendance at your typical chemistry seminar: the speaker, the host, the professors in the audience, and the rest of the audience.  Each set of stakeholders has its own responsibilities and expectations.

Rules for…

…the Speaker 

Give the host a title for your presentation so that people can judge whether they want to attend.  This courtesy is especially important if your research program is littered across many disciplines.  While “TBA” is acceptable if the talk is several months away, you should update the host when you’ve decided what it is you want to talk about.

Actually talk about the subject billed on your seminar flyer.  Don’t change your mind and surprise everyone.

Dress well.  Don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt.  It’s a matter of respect, and people do judge books by their covers.

If you notice a build up of people standing after your seminar starts, consider halting your talk to invite the latecomers to fill vacant seats.

TUGS brings up an excellent point that you should learn the name of your host—particularly if it is a difficult one to pronounce—so you don’t look like an idiot when you thank the person who has kindly spent her day shepherding you around the department.

Find out how long seminars are supposed to last and plan accordingly.  If everyone likes to get out within an hour, that does not mean your talk should last an hour.  You should stop 10 minutes early so that there will be time for questions.  Remember, people have seldom complained that a seminar was too short.

If you say you’ve got one more slide, make sure you have only one more slide.  Don’t go on for five more slides.  Putting up a slide that is titled “Future Directions” or “Conclusions” is the equivalent of saying that the talk is almost over. 

….the Host

Don’t get carried away with your introduction.  People are there to hear the seminar, not you.  Your intro should not take more than 3 minutes.  If you’re reading lines off of the speaker’s CV, you’re doing it wrong.  If you have a funny story to tell, make sure it is actually funny.

Ideally, the host will moderate the question session.  After the audience applauds, you should get up, stand to the side, and formally open the floor to questions.  You should select questioners and identify them by name.

It is the moderator’s job to make sure that question time does not carry on.  Be merciful.  Don’t let question time drag on forever.  Know when to apply the coup de grâce.  The classic line to use is “we can finish this discussion later on, let’s all thank Professor X once again…” 

In uncomfortable situations, such as language barriers between the speaker and questioners, it is your job to attempt to rephrase or translate the question.

If a questioner becomes too aggressive, it is your job to try to diffuse the situation and move past it.  The speaker is a guest of the department and should not be badgered.

…the Audience (in General)

If you enter the lecture hall more than five minutes or so past the start of the talk, find an empty seat towards the back or stand.  Don’t disrupt the talk by climbing through the audience to reach an empty seat, unless the speaker invites you to do so.

If people look at you when you’re talking to the person next to you, you’re speaking too loudly.  Shut up and pass notes instead.

If your boss invited the speaker, you should probably show up to the seminar…even if you’re going to be miserable.

It is perfectly acceptable to read a paper or check your e-mail if the talk stinks, but not in the very front of the lecture hall.  If you plan on multitasking, sit in the wings or at the back of the room.

Don’t ask questions that you know the answers to.  If you believe the speaker is unaware of a particular fact, state the fact outright and immediately follow it with your point.  Seminars are not quiz shows, and you are not Alex Trebek.  (This rule does not apply to professors when grad students are giving talks in their own department)

Don’t ask more than two questions in a row.  Give other people a chance.  Remember, you can always approach the speaker after the meeting has adjourned.

If you are not a professor yet you ask a question at every single seminar, people will think you are a tool.  Yes, this is irrational, but that’s just the way it is.

…the Professors in the Audience

In the event that there is a lull during question time, the responsibility of asking questions falls to the professors present.  That’s just the way it is.  If you are a professor, you need to have a couple of rounds in the chamber by the end of the talk.  A pause of anything more than five seconds is uncomfortable and rude.

Pitiful attendance at a seminar is embarrassing to the speaker and to the department.  If attendence is typically a problem at your seminars, the faculty needs to explore ways to put butts in the seats.

If the lecture hall is routinely less than one-third full for weekly seminars, the seminars should be held in a smaller room.

Try to encourage students to ask questions by not necessarily jumping at the speaker from the very start of question time.  A more timid member of the audience (i.e., everyone) won’t want to be third man in.

While you won’t get punished for breaking any of these rules, you won’t be doing yourself any favors, either.

Wrap Up: The Princeton News and Related Issues

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

What follows is my analysis of the issues discussed in “The Floor is Yours” and “The Week in Preview.” I have closed both of those threads and directed visitors wishing to continue the discussion to come here. I think it makes the most sense if I start by reviewing the news and talking about the “professional” issues in play. I’ll conclude with a revoltingly pompous dissertation on ChemBark as a medium for chemical news and a venue for subsequent analysis and discussion.

Allow me to apologize in advance for writing such a long article. I know that most of you have neither the time nor inclination to read lengthy posts, but parsing these ideas into smaller sections would create problems in that the complete picture would be missing.

Princeton’s Hire: Legitimate News, Not “Gossip”

As you know by now, the news to which am I referring is that Princeton University offered a tenure-track faculty position to a graduate student in the chemistry department at Harvard. I stand behind the validity of this information and the other facts presented below. While as a general rule you can count on the accuracy of the information that I post to this site, the same cannot be said for the info that visitors leave in the comments. Read anonymous comments with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The first task that I’m faced with is to defend this story as legitimate news rather than personal gossip. A lot of people improperly label some of the news in our field as “gossip” simply because the stories have aspects that portray people or organizations in a negative light. The real criterion one should use in identifying gossip is not negativity, but relevance. Gossip is news that bears only a loose connection to chemistry or the culture of our field. Gossip often focuses on issues like sexual orientation, romance, personal finance, health, addiction, and criminal history. There is very little or nothing for us to learn, as chemists, from gossip.

The story here is clearly not gossip. The news is of interest to the community not just because it deals with a top department and the subject of getting a job in academia, but because this particular hiring process marked a substantial deviation from the norm. I have stated before and adamantly maintain that it has become increasingly uncommon over the past four decades for grad students to be offered assistant professorships, especially without the expectation of pursuing postdoctoral study. Many commenters have listed examples of professors who did not complete a postdoc (e.g., Evans, Denmark, Whitesides), but these cases only support my argument. The last such hire that comes to mind is Liu in 1999; the rest occurred many moons ago. In my opinion, that qualifies as rare.

At this point, the discussion splits into two subjects: postdocs and hiring practices.

Postdoctoral Study: A Valuable Learning Experience or a Waste of Time?

From my perspective, the most interesting questions raised by this hire deal with the pros, cons, and necessity of pursuing postdoctoral study. As commenter Metastable said:

This interesting string of comments (much more interesting with Professor Reichman’s involvement) brings up a very important question: what is the point of a postdoc? Many scientists (named by Professor Reichman and others above) have had incredibly successful careers without one. And, it certainly is not the norm in many other disciplines (economics is one that rapidly comes to mind).

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It seems to be a protracted holding pattern for future scientists, consuming their more creative years. A case could be made that it allows the young scientist to gain experience, but is another 2-3 years working in someone else’s lab really all that valuable? And, is the research environment that much more complicated than 20 years ago, before the postdoc became a “requirement.”

The vast majority of people seeking a career in academia complete a postdoc, and a lot of commenters have left great reasons for doing one. Allow me to review some of them:

1) Expertise — Postdoctoral study is the highest plateau of the education continuum (grades 21-23, or so). During a postdoc, you will pick up a new set of skills and gain experience with a new research problem. A postdoc is a chance to broaden your base of knowledge in preparation for dealing with the world’s ever-growing emphasis on “interdisciplinary” research.

2) Sustained Productivity — Doing a postdoc allows you to demonstrate that you can switch research problems and be productive in a short time span, exactly what you will be expected to do as an assistant professor. In this regard, getting publications out of your postdoc will make you less risky from the standpoint of a university’s trusting you to set up a successful lab of your own.

3) Networking — Working at a new school for a new advisor will hopefully expand your “network” of colleagues. You will gain new contacts in the form of both labmates and professors. You will establish mutually-beneficial intellectual relationships that will last a lifetime. If you’re lucky, some doors may open in terms of finding a job, whether in academia or industry. And as mentioned in the comments, having another letter of recommendation will also help you get hired. Such a letter might be of greater importance to those with graduate advisors who are not well known (or liked) in the community.

4) Exposure to a New Environment — Whenever you change schools, you are exposed to different styles of management, ethical standards, social norms, experimental techniques, safety procedures, and regional cultures. Broadening your horizons will allow you to sample different “ways of doing business” from which you can pick and choose what you think works best when the time comes to set up your own lab.

5) Publications — Doing a postdoc will allow you to build a deeper record of publication. In addition to the papers that you will publish in your new lab, a postdoctoral stint will allow time for your grad school work to make it through the review process. Longer publication lists are definitely a good thing in terms of impressing future employers and securing funding.

6) Buying Time — There’s often not a lot of time left over for writing original proposals when you’re busy trying to write your Ph.D. thesis. Doing a postdoc gives you some time to decompress following the thesis crunch, sink your teeth into a new set of research problems, consult acquaintances on job hunting, and write proposals with renewed intensity.

Of course, these good things come at a cost: spending yet another two or three years in school when you could, in theory, be building your own research program. As Metastable said, these two or three years come in the prime of your life. Furthermore, it’s not guaranteed that you will have a good experience during your postdoc; you are taking a risk whenever you enter a new job.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the consensus opinion of the community is that the good things about doing a postdoc outweigh the bad, because the overwhelming majority of people who wish to enter academia complete a postdoc. Given the recent news, should we question the value this path? Does undertaking postdoctoral training actually enhance the quality of an assistant professor? Are there any worthwhile data that support this claim? If not, why does almost every chemist planning to enter academia do one?

A lot of people make a big deal about exploring new areas as your professional development progresses. Obviously, such a perception did not hinder the candidate in the present case, as she did her undergrad and grad work at the same school for the same advisor. It’s also interesting to note that when referring to his not seeking a postdoctoral position after grad school, George Whitesides told C&EN, “If you have a reasonably good taste about what’s new, then you might as well go it.” (C&EN, 26/3/2007, p. 20). If this is true, then is it the schools or the candidates themselves who are hesitant about bypassing postdoctoral training? Surely we can all agree that doing a postdoc is not a prerequisite for success as an assistant professor.

At the end of the day, I don’t know if we have enough data to answer most of these questions with any degree of satisfaction. Where do we even start? What is the best metric for “success” as an assistant professor? Furthermore, a number of potential confounding factors hinder proper analysis of this issue. For instance, the grad students who are offered assistant professorships are not randomly sampled—they are, presumably, the cream of the crop. I suppose we are forced to base our analysis largely on anecdotal evidence. Feel free to provide some data…

Fellow grad students out there: do you have any classmates who applied for academic jobs straight out of grad school? If so, were these applications targeted to a specific school or did they cast a wider net (the size typical of a postdoctoral candidate going academic)? Professors out there: do you see a lot of applications from grad students? In cases where you do see these applications, did the candidates have contacts at the school or were they especially encouraged to apply, i.e., were they recruited in any way?

The more information the better, but you needn’t use names. They don’t add much to the conversation and they get people riled up.

The Competition for Academic Talent

A second line of discussion that relates to the Princeton story centers on the techniques that departments use when competing for academic talent. Intellectual ability is a precious commodity, and schools want to attract candidates who will build fantastic research programs, win grant money, and increase the prestige of the institution.

In terms of measurable compensation, schools can offer candidates higher salaries, more lab space, more start-up funding, and lighter teaching loads. Each school also has intangible benefits it brings to the table, such as a desirable geographical location, high perception of prestige, friendly/congenial atmosphere, and access to better instrumentation. These are much harder to control—capital improvements can take years, cultural changes in a department can take decades, and geographical changes will almost never occur. Finally, there are also “negative” tools that departments can use, like peer pressure. (Yes, this actually happens.)

At the end of the day, the schools with the most money and prestige usually have the advantage. They can offer the candidates better financial packages, access to better facilities, more talented pools of students, and better brand names. These schools can also go after established superstars. For instance, Harvard is well known for recruiting talented professors from “rival” departments.

We see plenty of analogies in major sports. Successful teams in big markets, like the New York Yankees and Manchester United F.C., are more successful at attracting superstar players because they can offer them more money and historically better chances of contending for championships. Less successful teams in smaller markets find themselves having to scout less established players in hopes that one of them pans out. The upside, of course, is that they spend less money on player contracts.

What are some of the tools that smaller departments use? The first one is timing. Schools with fewer resources typically conduct their interviews and make subsequent offers earlier in the hiring cycle than the more prestigious schools. In doing so, the smaller departments apply pressure to the candidates they have targeted. The hope is that these candidates will accept a position instead of waiting for offers from better schools and risking not getting hired at all. Sometimes, the candidates must decide whether to accept offers before they’ve even finished all of their other interviews.

A second tool that smaller schools can use is what we saw happen in the case of Princeton: you can go after younger talent. Again, we see the same thing in sports. Perennially decent teams with lower positions in the draft will gamble on underclassmen (or even high schoolers) that they probably would have no shot at drafting as college seniors. It is often the case that departments don’t wait for young talent to come to them. Instead, they gather intelligence and invite prospective talent to apply.

The issue of hiring young talent in sports has prompted massive debate. Should academia should consider the same questions? How young is too young? Will young talent develop better in college (a postdoc) or in the pros (as an assistant professor)? Many national governments and leagues (e.g., NBA and EPL) have passed legislation preventing teams from “robbing the cradle,” an action that speaks to the importance of the issue.

So, will we see more early hires? I wouldn’t be surprised. What actually surprises me is that we haven’t already seen more.

The Tangential Details and Related Public Perception

At this point, I believe that I have sufficiently established the legitimacy and importance of the story. It would be remiss of me if I did not address the somewhat provocative tangential details that were raised in the discussion threads. I’m not here to make any judgments or add to either the concern or praise (let’s not forget that there was lots of it) expressed in the comments. I think it is self-evident that, as David Reichman put it, “NO CHEMISTRY DEPARTMENT HIRES SOMEONE BECAUSE THEIR MOTHER IS THE PRESIDENT OF ANOTHER UNIVERSITY OR BECAUSE THEIR PARENTS USED TO BE FACULTY MEMBERS IN A UNRELATED DEPARTMENT.” In the same vein, I’ll reprint part of an excellent comment left by Slapshot:

2) Proposals
Evaluating a potential prof candidate solely on the available info (published papers and rumors) is also very silly indeed. The most important thing for a department are the ideas the incoming new person brings to the table — the awesome, new, outside-the-box chemistry the person proposes to do. If someone is eager and ready to the mental work of a prof coming out of grad school — they better get the chance to it before they realize they can take their brains and jump ship to a hedge fund. Talk about bad for science. Seriously, why waste time in a post-doc running more columns and learning how to run a gel or a laser if you don’t need to do that to do your chemistry???

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3) The person in question.
I don’t know for sure but have heard from friends at Harvard and Stanford that this person is absolutely stellar scientifically and also that she’s super nice. Really, based on the amazing things I’ve heard I wasn’t surprised to see the link above to the Princeton seminar series page. But… that’s just a seminar. To get an offer you have to have much more than a couple of JACS papers and good talk. You have to be brilliant, see (2).

That said, there is an interesting general point we should explore regarding the importance of “whom you know” in terms of finding jobs. While it won’t be 100% responsible for getting an offer, can having friends or well-connected professors help you get a foot in the door? Do some professors “go to bat” for their students more than others? If so, is that “unfair”? Does it partially erode the perception of meritocracy if everyone is not subjected to the same application process?

It’s no secret that some advisors have better track records in terms of their students finding academic positions at good schools. Why is this? Is it better letters of recommendation, better contacts, more encouragement to apply for academic jobs, better research, better training? Along the same lines, some schools (Harvard is one) seem to disproportionately hire alumni of the school. Is this a coincidence? I don’t know, but again, you can point to a number of possible confounding factors.

Regarding the hiring of female assistant professors, I think we can all agree that the under-representation of female professors in the sciences has schools especially intent on hiring qualified female candidates. This focus was intensified following the professional lynching of Larry Summers, and every issue of C&EN has classified ads that end with something akin to “University of X is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and applications from women and underrepresented minority group members are especially encouraged.” Without delving into a discussion of the merits of affirmative action, we must accept that affirmative action is now endorsed across most of our field. The reality is that it’s both a blessing and a curse, because while more minority candidates will be hired, there will also be more people who think that anytime a minority is hired it’s just because they’re a minority. Regardless, it will be interesting to see if schools make recruiting minority graduate students a key tool in diversifying their faculties, especially in the sciences.

The Experimental Nature of the “Princeton Post”

A few commenters asked why I brought up this specific story if I just wanted to talk about postdocs and hiring practices. Well, this piece of news is what drew my attention to the subject. It is a fact of life that interesting discussions are almost always started by stories in the news. It took 9/11 to direct more attention to terrorism. It took global warming to direct the world’s attention to carbon emissions. It took Christopher Reeve’s accident to direct national attention to spinal cord research. If we speak purely in hypothetical terms without any basis in reality, fewer people are going to care. There is nothing unfair or irresponsible about examining hiring practices in the context of the Princeton news.

A number of commenters also took umbrage at how I approached this story and these issues in a sort of “open thread.” Some of the people who agree that these issues are worthy of discussion and analysis believe that I should have provided more direction to focus the discussion. In hindsight, I am inclined to agree. When I originally wrote this post, I was under the impression that more people were aware of the news. Quite a few people brought it up in discussions around here and word had traveled outside of the department. Most news is reported on ChemBark juxtaposed with my take on the subject. That creates a bias that influences the ensuing discussion. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to see what happens when I don’t bias the presentation of information, but allow commenters on “equal footing” with each other to bring out the news and discuss it themselves. I clearly labeled the post as an experiment and asked commenters to be civil and analytical. Obviously, some weren’t.

I’ll regard the experiment as a failed success. It was successful in that it succeeded in sparking a spirited discussion where we were actually discussing important issues. And for the first time, a professor at a top-ten department chose to leave a signed comment. That said, the success was overshadowed by a number of negative aspects, some of which were a direct result of the “experimental” method of presentation. While the news eventually took control of the threads, it took 48 comments to get on track. From that point, there was a mix of interesting comments, vapid comments, insulting comments, and utter garbage. Obviously, not all readers can be trusted to be civil in the comments. I’m learning here and will adapt accordingly. In this regard, I appreciate when people voice their opinions on how to improve this site, even if it is in the form of rude and threatening comments directed at me.

ChemBark as a Chemical News Medium

ChemBark is many things. It is part serious. It is part silly. It is a place people come to read about important issues in our field. It is a place people come to make jokes and have fun. Much like a newspaper has a front page and a comics section, ChemBark has posts that lie on different levels of seriousness. The unifying theme is that they all have something to do with chemistry.

Clearly, bona fide chemistry news falls within the purview of this blog, and the fact that some posts contain original reporting is one of the biggest reasons people come to this site. The “news” at ChemBark extends beyond commentary on research reports into areas like the political, cultural, ethical, and managerial aspects of research in chemistry. When discussing these topics, I steer clear of discussing personal information that is irrelevant or of little relevance to any larger story. I know a lot of you know or want to know about things like chemists’ places of residence, sexual orientation, romantic affairs, and other sensitive personal business. I don’t discuss such information here.

I enjoy writing posts, and part of this enjoyment comes from being able to use the blog to draw attention to issues that I think are interesting and merit discussion. I have limited time to devote to the site, so I generally focus on issues and stories that have been overlooked by the more traditional media. There is no need for me to post on things that are already covered somewhere else. That’s why there aren’t many reviews of research papers here. If you want to read about research, you can open JACS or Angewandte and read the original reports. For coverage of most of the significant events in the world of chemistry, you can crack open your weekly copy of C&EN.

Of course, publications like C&EN and Chemistry World usually limit themselves to stories that portray our field in a positive light. Unfortunately, not all of the aspects of research in chemistry are positive. There will always be matters of scientific misconduct, ethical dilemmas, dirty politics, misappropriated funds, and petty bickering. These sorts of issues are pervasive in our community and we should not feel ashamed to learn about them and discuss them. Part of the job of the media is to serve as a watchdog. Despicable acts like scientific misconduct merit coverage and significant follow-up attention. It is sad that the paper media in our field either don’t share this view or don’t have the time, money, space, or inclination to apply constant pressure and get to the bottom of things. It is ridiculous to think that ChemBark is contributing to a problem or doing more harm than good when we report on a negative or provocative story. No scientist should feel that ignorance is bliss or that discussing interesting news is counterproductive.

Finally, let me also point out that there are plenty of positive posts on ChemBark, too (1 2 3 4 5). A lot of people conveniently forget that.

ChemBark as a Venue for Analysis and Discussion

It is one thing for me to post news or analysis, but unlike with traditional media, on a blog, all readers have the chance to respond and start a discussion. ChemBark is not just a publication, it’s a community.

As Josh Finkelstein, a senior editor at Nature, said in the latest Nature Chemistry Podcast, “Chemists are generally quite social animals.” The problem is that for many important “hot button” issues, the only places you can find these discussions are around water coolers or over lunch tables—venues that are closed to the public. Why not discuss these issues on a bigger scale? That’s part of what ChemBark is about: being a water cooler for everyone who’s interested in discussing important chemical news. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a big department or a lone alchemist—anyone can participate.

I have accepted the fact that there will be bumps in the road as I try to steer ChemBark to becoming a respectable place for discussion about technical and cultural issues in chemistry. Due to the lack of transparency in our field and the concentration of power in a small elite class, we are fighting a massive activation barrier in reaching that goal. We live under a cloud of fear. Students fear their advisors. Professors fear their colleagues. Authors fear their reviewers. Reviewers fear revenge. People don’t want to run the risk of being honest and upsetting someone because they think it will come back to bite them…and they might be right. Long gone are the days when chemists would intellectually spar over fascinating research with little regard for anything but the truth. Grizzled physical organic chemists still sing songs of the epic battles over nonclassical carbocations (the followers of Winstein vs. the followers of Brown). Although tempers often flared and feelings were often hurt, there is no question that these debates pushed the field to improve its experiments and solve the problem.

But, like I said, those days are gone. Now, if we want our culture to change, the progress will have to be slow and steady. If ChemBark falls too far outside of the current cultural norms, people will just ignore it. I manage ChemBark accordingly. First, I favor depth in coverage as opposed to breadth. Only a small percentage of the posts on ChemBark are “hot button” topics. If I came out with guns blazing against every problem and injustice in the world of chemistry, this site would be viewed as a joke. Second, while I would like for everyone to feel safe in signing their names to their comments, I realize that this is going to take some time. While I comment using my real name, I allow anonymous comments because not granting anonymity would stifle any sort of meaningful discussion. The trade off, of course, is that there’s an element of hypocrisy in how ChemBark seeks to be an “open forum” but allows people to hide behind anonymous screen names. Last, I realize that I’m a lowly graduate student with zero clout or power in our field. The “Paul Bracher” brand name is worth nothing, and correspondingly, offers this blog nothing. The only way that I can build credibility for this site is to manage it responsibly by being fair and addressing issues in a professional manner—especially the controversial ones.

One philosophical stand that I’ve made is to allow nearly complete freedom of speech in the comments. The comments are a big part of this site and we’ve already seen how great comments can be informative and thought provoking. This is exactly the reason that the comments exist. As I agree with Potter Stewart that censorship “is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime,” the only comments I delete are spam and those that stray so recklessly deep into personal ground that the information is both offensive and worthless. I welcome you to identify comments that you think should be deleted.

A consequence of all this leeway is that comments will sometimes venture into areas that hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes, commenters crack hurtful jokes. Sometimes, completely legitimate comments hit a little “too close to home.” I am resigned to the fact that providing an open forum will inevitably mean that “good” people will occasionally be hit with shrapnel, but getting mad at me for these comments is like getting mad at your department’s administration for funding social hours and parties. After all, people come to these events and discuss rumors and crack insulting jokes. At the same time, plenty of people participate in intelligent, thought-provoking conversations. The comments that rub you the wrong way are the price we pay for all of the “good things” that the freedom of commentary brings.

What you should remember is that—ChemBark or no ChemBark—these conversations are still taking place behind closed doors. I personally think the “open” system afforded by blogs is better than the “closed” system that is currently in operation. First, the closed system is unfair to the individuals being discussed because not only can they not defend themselves, they have no idea they are even a subject of discussion. On ChemBark, everyone has access to the same information and can either choose to join the discussion or just observe. The current system affords no such courtesy. Second, the current system is inefficient. With a select few individuals holding these discussions, there are fewer brains actively analyzing what is going on. When you open the discussion to the entire community, everyone can raise points and learn from it.

One aspect of the comments that probably goes overlooked is that I am one of the biggest losers as far as allowing anonymous commenting is concerned. First, I receive the “blame” for many of these anonymous comments because I am the one who provides the open forum. Second, many (most?) anonymous attacks on this blog are leveled at me. Some commenters have attacked me using multiple user names to make it seem that the dissatisfaction is widespread. Third, people comment anonymously to mask perceived conflicts of interest. For instance, by their IP addresses, I know that some of the attacks leveled at me come from friends and colleagues of people discussed in news stories. If you knew that at the time, you would probably reduce the weight of their opinion relative to an unbiased casual observer. Still, I allow the comments to stay and don’t “out” the people who left them. While I don’t dish out anonymous vitriol, I take more of it than anyone.

Getting back to the “hot button” issues discussed on ChemBark, do we have to discuss these topics? The simple answer is “yes.” A lot of Web 2.0 efforts that should enjoy success are initially doomed for failure because they are too restrictive. There is already a resistance in our field, for whatever reason, to embracing Web 2.0 technology. Since we are already attracting a small number of people, it would be stupid to further discourage participation by requiring registration, banning anonymous comments, narrowing the scope to ridiculously specific subsets of our field, or attempting to cater to too many people by barring discussion of interesting but provocative issues.

I think it’s also fair to say that most of the opinions expressed on ChemBark regarding provocative issues are actually representative of more widely-held opinions in our field. For instance, I think the outrage expressed in the blogosphere over the Sames-Sezen situation mirrored that in the world of research. I think it is also clear that views in the blogosphere have shaped, to a degree, some of the stories run in C&EN, Chemistry World, Science, and Nature. Aside from the SSS, opinions expressed in the blogosphere regarding the 2007 Nobel Prize (1 2) were reported in the print edition of Nature. I don’t think the editors would have done this if our views were not representative of a larger population of chemists.

I’d like to think that ChemBark is doing some good things and that it is not simply a “time sink” blog, as one commenter put it. I am pleasantly surprised that the site receives a lot of Google traffic for technical questions, like the general procedure for HATU coupling. There is clearly an audience for technical information in chemical blogspace. I am also encouraged that people refer visitors to ChemBark’s discussions of cultural issues in our field, like the order of authors on papers or how to improve peer review. Where else can you find analyses of these issues that are open and accessible to all who wish to voice their opinion? And as far as humor is concerned, I would hope that people appreciate and enjoy the posts and comments on ChemBark that are made in jest. You guys crack me up, and I thank you for it.

Risk Management

A question that is occasionally raised in comments is whether ChemBark could damage my prospects for a career in chemistry. It is something I have considered at great length, and I have arrived at the unsurprising conclusion that running this blog has the potential to both help and hurt me. ChemBark is a genuine reflection of my personality because I have elected to run the site in as honest and straightforward a manner as possible. I use my real name, strive for 100% factual accuracy, and openly share my personal opinions and the reasons behind them. The downside of sharing all of this information is that some people will be turned off by my personality and opinions. For example, I get the distinct impression that some of you do not appreciate my frankness and willingness to explore politically incorrect questions. I suppose this could hurt my chances of landing a job in some places, but I’d rather miss out on these jobs than be hired and have to pretend that I’m someone I’m not.

On the flip side, there is also the small prospect that this blog could end up helping my career. On the off chance that potential employers stumble across ChemBark, I would hope to come across as reasonably intelligent, creative, logical, and someone who loves chemistry, loves teaching, and cares about the managerial aspects of research (advising, administration, ethics, etc.). It should also be noted that ChemBark and its predecessor have damn good track records of finding interesting stories and getting the facts right. At times, we may have even outclassed the coverage of C&EN, Science, Nature, and the New York Times. The commentary on ChemBark, while opinionated, is kept as clinical as possible. I don’t swear. I don’t launch personal or ad hominem attacks. I take the time to substantiate my opinions with facts and reason, and I provide an open forum for public dissent should anyone wish to disagree. What news medium publishes every single piece of correspondence the editors receive, including attacks against them which are untrue and personally insulting?

I also want to address the concern that my candor could result in the ultimate demise of this site:

I’m kind of annoyed that no one else besides Paul was willing to say anything after this. Are we afraid someone will pull the plug, Trost-style?

Rest assured; there is only one person who can “pull the plug” on this site—me. One of the things I enjoy about ChemBark is that it’s something over which I have complete editorial control. I can ensure that the site addresses issues I feel are important and adheres to the principles I espouse in life because I run everything. In the future, it may become necessary for me to either suspend or terminate my participation on ChemBark. Should that happen, I will give you a full report on the reasons necessitating the action. In the meantime, everyone deserves a hobby, and ChemBark is mine.

Concluding Remarks

In theory, academia exists to enhance our understanding of the world. Critical examination and honesty should take precedence over personal advancement, popularity, pride, and political correctness. We should not fear starting discussions about interesting news, ideas, and theories simply because the scrutiny may stray into areas where people will have their ideas challenged or feelings hurt. Sadly, in the current politicized climate of chemical research, many chemists are resigned to an existence where speaking critically and honestly is limited to the shadows cast by privacy and anonymity. Such a system is shamefully inefficient, and as scientists, we should seek alternatives that allow us to embrace our analytical roots and thoughtfully examine our lives.

Reaching that goal is a big part of what ChemBark is all about. In the meantime, if I don’t get back to acting like I don’t take this blog that seriously, everyone is going to get upset.

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