Archive for the ‘Lab Management’ Category

Organic Letters on the Lookout for Data Manipulation

Friday, June 7th, 2013

Photograph of Bengu Sezen, Columbia University, ChemistryAmos Smith, the editor-in-chief of Organic Letters, just published an editorial to alert the community that the journal has hired a data analyst and that the editors are inspecting the data in papers (including the Supporting Information) for evidence of manipulation:

I write to alert the organic chemistry community to a serious problem related to the integrity of data being submitted for review and publication by Organic Letters and to outline steps that the Journal is taking to address this concern. Recently, with the addition of a Data Analyst to our staff, Organic Letters has begun checking the submitted Supporting Information more closely. As a result of this increased scrutiny, we have discovered several instances where reported spectra had been edited to remove evidence of impurities.Such acts of data manipulation are unacceptable. Even if the experimental yields and conclusions of a study are not affected, ANY manipulation of research data casts doubts on the overall integrity and validity of the work reported.

Smith went on to state that the corresponding authors of manuscripts would be held responsible and punished by the journal for any manipulation of data, although no specifics were given for what sort of punishment would be doled out:

In some of the cases that we have investigated further, the Corresponding Author asserted that a student had edited the spectra without the Corresponding Author’s knowledge. This is not an acceptable excuse! The Corresponding Author (who is typically also the research supervisor of the work performed) is ultimately responsible for warranting the integrity of the content of the submitted manuscript.

The responsibility to foster a research environment where all involved can confidently present their results, even if they are not optimal, resides with each research supervisor and Corresponding Author. At times, the inherent power of a research advisor’s position can create an atmosphere that leads some to embellish results.

I have noted before that professors (i.e., corresponding authors) often seem to receive the lion’s share of credit  (e.g., prizes, invitations, fame) for great papers, but students receive most of the blame when misconduct is unearthed. I am glad that Smith is holding corresponding authors accountable for the work that is published by their labs. Professors, as managers, have a responsibility to control the quality of their lab’s output. Famous and/or scary PIs should not be surprised that when they badger and yell at students for higher yields and cleaner baselines, some students are going to resort to inflating yields and manipulating spectra. I am not at all saying this is right; I’m just saying it happens, and part of the reason it happens is because some PIs reward it.

Smith’s editorial also makes me think back to our original reporting regarding the Sames-Sezen retractions and how Columbia University completely erased the following section from their policy on research misconduct:
In modern collaborative research, the implications of academic misconduct or fraud go far beyond the individual; they also affect collaborators whose own work has been committed to objective search for truth. The specter of guilt by association may lurk in the background for many years to come. Therefore, joint authorship requires joint responsibility; each author claiming credit for the entire work must also be aware of joint discredit. Investigators in collaborative research projects each must make reasonable and periodic inquiry as to the integrity of and processes involved in gathering and evaluating data. It should be understood that overall responsibility for the integrity of collaborative research rests with the principal investigator. Senior investigators cannot be allowed to escape the consequences of the discovery of misconduct or fraud committed under their supervision.

Yes, they deleted that section DURING their investigation. Of course, Sames is still a professor at Columbia while Sezen has had her Ph.D. revoked. The way Columbia dealt with that case was a travesty—a complete disgrace.

I hope Smith sticks to his guns.

H/T: Excimer
More discussion: Just Like Cooking, Chemjobber, r/chemistry

Lab Manuals

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

ChemBark's Orby the InsectI’m always interested to come across instructional documents on chemistry professors’ Web sites. These documents can be great resources, because they often contain very practical advice about safety, direction on how to maintain instruments, and guidance on experimental technique from experts in the field. Taking the time to commit this information to writing also helps prevent “institutional” loss of memory when senior members of the lab graduate without having properly trained the next generation of students.

Unfortunately, you don’t come across that many lab manuals online. Perhaps this is because some of them are distributed in hard copy only. Perhaps, some professors don’t want to explicitly write procedures and safety guidelines in fear they might be used against them in court. My guess, however, is that most people can’t find the time to sit down and write out this information—or they don’t see the value in doing so.

Jim Tour’s “Guidelines for Research” is among my favorite documents. He gets very specific about some of the advice he doles out. For instance, all nitrogen bubblers left on overnight should have a flow rate of one bubble per second or less. Tour provides guidance on how he likes notebooks to be kept, and he also provides expectations about work ethic and vacations. Finally, there is the passage on personal hygiene:

Personal Hygiene: Although not customary in all countries, Americans generally bathe at least several times per week. As a result, many Americans are offended by the infrequent bathing habits of others (whether Americans or internationals). Thus, you may be leaving a negative impression of yourself without ever knowing it. Unfortunately, bad impressions are often difficult to overcome. Likewise, be sure to use an underarm deodorant since most Americans find body odor to be most offensive. I have seen people causing themselves to be ostracized by others simply because of poor personal hygiene habits.

It might seem trifling or overbearing to provide advice on this level, but the info is correct and I wish more people heeded Tour’s advice.

While the idea of writing a manual all at once seems daunting, I think that doing it in pieces seems quite reasonable. In fact, I think you can assemble some really good tidbits of advice from material that is already posted online. These documents are almost like official memoranda to members of professors’ labs. For instance:

The famous “How to Write a Scientific Paper” article in Advanced Materials had its beginnings as a type-written memo from George Whitesides to his lab.

There’s also Ken Suslick’s cool presentation on how to give a talk.

And I like how some professors provide specific instructions on how to ask them for letters of recommendation.

Anyway, before I go writing similar stuff in the future, I wanted to know if you all had come across any great lab manuals or memos. Leave them in the comments, and I’ll compile a list below.

Lab Manuals

Jim Tour’s “Guidelines for Research
Melanie Sanford’s “Group Welcome Kit
Dave Collum’s site
Bart Bartlett’s “Standard Operating Procedures
Turro Group’s site
Watson Group Manual
Tolman Lab’s “Standard Operating Procedures
Armen Zakarian’s site


Starting Up a Chemistry Lab: Advice & Bargains

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

ed_academic_bigBefore I go and do anything stupid, I wanted to ask everyone for advice about starting up a university chemistry lab from scratch. While it looks like I’ll be inheriting some glassware and chemicals in my assigned lab space, I’ll basically need just about everything you can think of. I know that places like Sigma-Aldrich salivate at the prospect of reeling in people like me, and I’ll definitely take my wish list to them and their obvious competitors for quotes, but I’d love to use this thread as a resource for crowdsourcing wisdom about how to get the most bang for your start-up buck. I see no sense in wasting money.

I’ll begin:

— I am routinely appalled at how much the safety glasses in chemistry catalogs cost (e.g., $11 for a run-of-the-mill pair from Aldrich). I love the style variation and price offered by Northern Safety (e.g., $4 or lower for a better pair). I know $7 is not a huge deal, but it adds up when you’re buying enough to outfit a bunch of people. Also, with decent safety glasses as low as $2, there is no excuse for not carpetbombing your lab with eye protection (for large groups of visitors, etc.) and tossing out nasty, old, scratched-up glasses.

— The cost of balances, especially in scientific catalogs, is unbelievably high. I like the deals offered at Affordable Scales. I think my plan will be to purchase one nice analytical balance to be used only when necessary, then a bunch of “precision” balances for routine lab work. For most things, it doesn’t matter if you make your buffer with 15.1 g of salt versus 15.005 g. In my experience, grad students and postdocs abuse balances. I’d rather have them abuse less-sensitive units than nice ones.

— Stirring hot plates also seem to cost way more than they should. That said, I am leaning towards splurging for IKA models, because I have had bad experiences with other brands. Anyone out there have a favorite hot plate or know where to get a good deal?

If you’d rather send me your advice by e-mail, feel free. I’ll protect your super-secret identity and post it to the thread myself. And if you’re a magnate of industry and have unwanted equipment you want to donate to charity (i.e., me/SLU), let me know. 😉


Long Weekend, Big Plans

Friday, August 31st, 2012

My plans for Labor Day weekend are all set thanks to a nice discovery during a group clean-up yesterday:

Plenty of gloves? Check. Multiple boxes of FIXANAL? Check.

Who would name a brand of buffer concentrates “FIX ANAL” and shape the container like a…well…errrr?

Germans. That’s who. I guess you can just add this to the list of cross-cultural marketing blunders, though I am not certain that there wasn’t someone who did this on purpose. Who else sells buffer mix in an odd tube like that?

Interesting Vendor Mail

Friday, August 24th, 2012

It seems that VWR and I have very different opinions as to what constitutes “IMPORTANT Information”:



A dinosaur squishy toy attached to a 15%-off coupon for a new balance only musters an 8.2 out of 10 on my scale of importance, but thanks for writing.