Archive for the ‘Legal Issues’ Category

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.

Questionnaire Answers from Dr. Diane Schmidt, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Earlier this month, ChemBark sent a questionnaire to the three current candidates for ACS President-Elect. The set of questions was similar to the set distributed last year that Tom Barton was kind enough to answer.

ChemBark is publishing each candidate’s response—complete and unedited—in dedicated posts. Dr. Chuck Kolb’s answers and Dr. Bryan Balazs answers ran in previous posts. The next candidate to respond is Dr. Diane Schmidt (whose response was delayed due to jury duty). Her answers appear below.

Don’t forget to vote in the ACS national elections!

 

Response of Dr. Diane Schmidt, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

1. What are your thoughts about the historically low voter turnout (~15%) typical of ACS national elections?

Apathy is difficult to cure. One suggestion would be to have greater publicity in C&EN (perhaps a cover article) to raise the profile and awareness of the national elections. The option to vote electronically does not appear to have had the impact of  greater participation in the national elections that was expected.

2. What is your stance regarding the fees that ACS Publications charges companies and universities to access journals?

Journal pricing is complex and is probably best understood by dealing in specifics for specific schools and companies rather than generalities.  When I get these questions, I always refer people to Pubs.  In many cases there are custom solutions that can be crafted for individual circumstances.

My view is that ACS journals offer high value and high impact at competitive pricing. The quality and the value of the trusted, peer reviewed information provided by ACS journals is a very good value vs. other publishers.

3. What is your stance on the ACS’s executive compensation packages?

Full transparency is important. Perhaps a C&EN comment on the process that is used would help get everyone on the same page as to what is actually in place and the process that is used to determine compensation.

You may remember that the Board held a town meeting on Executive Compensation after Council in Fall, 2005, and perhaps a refresher is in order via a C&EN comment. C&EN calls attention to the ACS Form 990 filing each year and tells readers how to access that document on acs.org. Here’s the link to the 990 notice on page 6 of C&EN.

http://www.cendigital.org/cendigital/20121210??pg=8&search term=990&doc id=-1&search term=990#pg8 

4. What are your thoughts on the recent ACS vs. Leadscope case? Do you believe that society records pertaining to the lawsuit—including legal fees—should be made public?

Full transparency is important.

The background as I recall is that all public reports on Leadscope in the early days were modulated by the fact that it was active litigation.  The events relating to the litigation go back to 1998. For a long time, virtually nothing happened, then there was the trial.

For nearly a year after the settlement in 2012, an extensive Q&A was advertised on the front page of the ACS website. It can still be found at:

http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/about/aboutacs/acs-v-leadscope-questions-and-answers.html

One of the difficulties I think with this case is it spanned quite a number of years perhaps making it difficult to follow. My impression is there were regular updates in C&EN over the course of the legal proceedings as the case unfolded, reports in Council of the case status by the Chair of the Board, as well as updates in the Councilor Bulletin. Perhaps a summary in C&EN tying all of the bits and pieces together that were published over time as the case unfolded would be helpful with links to the publically available information. My understanding is that the Chair of the Board reports which include Leadscope are posted on the ACS website.

The most recent report on Leadscope and the financial impact on ACS was by the Chair of the Board  and was presented in Council last Spring. I believe his remarks are posted on the ACS web.

My understanding is that the proceedings of this case are in the public record. To read a summary of the case prepared by the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Office of Public Information, click here: http://www.courtnewsohio.gov/cases/2012/SCO/0918/101335.asp

5. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the public perception of chemistry?

Outreach. Chemistry improves the lives of all. Communicating specific examples such as chemistry’s role in clean water, food safety, medicinal improvements, diagnostic techniques, etc.  that the general public experiences daily, but does not identify as chemistry. This would help make the connection between the role of chemistry and the improvements the general public experiences in daily life because of the contributions of chemists and chemistry. The ACS Landmarks Program does this to some degree. During the International Year of Chemistry, many examples of how chemistry improves life daily were posted on the ACS website. There is an opportunity to go the next step and more broadly communicate these.

6. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the employment situation for chemists?

Ensure that all members and all chemists know of and have access to the many ACS employment tools and services already in place. Work with staff and members to further enhance, expand and improve these tools.

7. What is your favorite chemical compound with respect to color or smell?

My favorite chemical compound is caffeine, especially delivered in chocolate. It was my first total synthesis as an undergraduate.

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

Questionnaire Answers from Dr. Bryan Balazs, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Monday, October 21st, 2013

Earlier this month, ChemBark sent a questionnaire to the three current candidates for ACS President-Elect. The set of questions was similar to the set distributed last year that Tom Barton was kind enough to answer.

ChemBark will publish each candidate’s response—complete and unedited—in dedicated posts. Dr. Chuck Kolb’s answers ran last week. The next candidate to respond is Dr. Bryan Balazs. His answers appear below.

Don’t forget to vote in the ACS national elections!

Edit: This post has been corrected to include the correct spelling of “Balazs”. (We regret the error!)

 

Response of Dr. Bryan Balazs, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Hi Paul,

With the excitement of the Nobel prizes now (somewhat) behind us, here are my responses to your questions posed below.  Let me know if there are any statements that need additional clarification, and thanks for the opportunity to address your readership on these important topics.

Cheers,
Bryan

PS:  If the answers are too long, I can shorten them.

 

1. What are your thoughts about the historically low voter turnout (~15%) typical of ACS national elections?

I wish this were a higher percentage, as elections are the opportunity for all members to have a voice in who will be the representative of their Society to the membership, to the public, to government, and to other countries.  The ACS is the largest scientific society in the world and with this size come challenges in effective engagement with the membership.  The candidates do have different strengths, backgrounds, and platforms, and the ACS President definitely can influence the future of the Society.  What the low turnout tells us is either: A) members do not follow the elections or care about the outcome, B) the reason they are ACS members is unlikely to be influenced very much by who the President is, or C) members do not know any of the candidates and don’t wish to participate in an election without having an informed vote.  If would like to understand the relative influence of each of these three possibilities, and if there are other reasons  Until we get this information, what can we do in the meantime to improve this?  Here are a few ideas I would like to suggest:  1. The members don’t get many opportunities to interact with the candidates and vice versa. The current election rules are very restrictive and so, we should explore ways for the candidates to reach out to members, and the ACS could provide more resources for the candidates to facilitate this; 2. To make it easier to vote, ACS should move towards a default of electronic voting rather than the current paper ballot with an option to vote online; 3. Members who vote can influence and encourage friends and colleagues to vote.  This sounds simple but can have a huge effect in the voting rates; and finally 4. We can nurture voting regularity in younger members by providing some kind of membership incentives as a result of voting.

2. What is your stance regarding the fees that ACS Publications charges companies and universities to access journals?

I have heard from many members, especially those at small colleges or companies that the journal prices are raising at an unsustainable rate for them and they wish that there were other pricing options.  This is indeed a problem not only for ACS publications but also other publications like Nature, to the point where universities are considering boycotting journal subscriptions.  Also, there has been an increase in open access journals, a trend ACS has to keep in mind. While there should be no restrictions in the spread of knowledge, unfortunately, publishing and circulation of these journals (both online and physical copies) does come with costs.  We need to explore ways to keep these costs under control, and academia, industry and the scientific societies need to have a serious dialogue on this issue.  This needs to happen because it directly affects our members.

3. What is your stance on the ACS’s executive compensation packages?

Within any organization, the pay that an employee receives should correspond to the value that this employee provides to the organization, and the ACS should be no different.  All salaries must be benchmarked against market conditions, keeping in mind that the ACS is a complex non-profit organization with over 160,000 members, about 2000 staff members, and about a billion dollars in assets.  Executive compensation packages should reflect this, and the ACS has been very transparent about this information; see https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/about/aboutacs/financial.html (see part VII in the 2011 IRS Form 990 for info on executive compensation).

4. What are your thoughts on the recent ACS vs. Leadscope case?  Do you believe that society records pertaining to the lawsuit—including legal fees—should be made public?

I am familiar with only the basic facts of the case, such as those published by the ACS in C&EN or in the Councilor bulletins.  To be honest, I really don’t have a strong opinion in this case, but it sounds like the ACS made logical decisions as the legal process unfolded.  The ACS has said that the legal judgment against the ACS will not affect member dues or benefits, and I take their word on this.

5. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the public perception of chemistry?

The public listens to celebrities and other people in the public spotlight, and I believe we should tap into this.  Many of these people are enthusiastic about science, so why not partner with them to help spread the message about the value of chemistry (science in general)?  I think having actor Alan Alda at the recent national meeting in Indianapolis was a superb idea, and I would do more of this.

6. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the employment situation for chemists?

This is a complex issue, but ACS can do a better job of bridging the employers with new opportunities (employees).  My thoughts are as follows:

There is no doubt that chemists are in a competitive job market in the current challenging economic times.  In my opinion, applicants need three things to land a job: 1) they need to find out about job openings (this goes without saying), 2) they need to have the required skills for the job, and 3) they need to outshine the competition when it comes to the application and interview process.  The ACS needs stronger efforts for its members in each of these areas.  Quite frankly, the ACS does not do a very good job at identifying for its members where the jobs are and who IS hiring (item number 1).  This can be improved by coming up with a database of websites that ACS member can use to locate the jobs that they might be qualified for, including companies that are “non-traditional” employers of chemists.  With item number 2, skills, I feel that in the fast changing competition from talent around the world, we need to constantly encourage our students and work force to keep learning new skills, even while in a job.  One of the latest trends in our education system is the onset of online courses.  I will extend my efforts to explore collaborations between ACS and institutions offering such courses to benefit our members.  For item number 3, the ACS has good resources to help members polish their resume, work through the application process, etc., but surprisingly few members take advantage of these resources.  We need to find out why, and we need to improve this.  One of the areas we can improve is to offer online services for those seeking help with item number 3.

7. What is your favorite chemical compound with respect to color or smell?

I have lots of favorite chemicals and elements, but one that comes to mind is malachite green, or [C6H5C(C6H4N(CH3)2)2]Cl.  My organic chemistry professor in college, who had a rather mischievous sense of humor, had the students synthesize malachite green in the organic lab around St. Patrick’s Day.  Malachite green is a very intense dye, and the end result of all these students synthesizing this compound was that the hallways of the chemistry building turned green, and students’ furniture, clothes, bedsheets, and so forth had a green tinge.  Pretty amusing, unless of course you had a car with white leather seats…!

Questionnaire Answers from Dr. Charles Kolb, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Monday, October 14th, 2013

Earlier this month, ChemBark sent a questionnaire to the three current candidates for ACS President-Elect. The set of questions was similar to the set distributed last year that Tom Barton was kind enough to answer.

ChemBark will publish each candidate’s response—complete and unedited—in dedicated posts. The first candidate to respond was Dr. Chuck Kolb. His response appears below. (The answers of Dr. Bryan Balazs can be found in this thread.)

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Response of Dr. Chuck Kolb, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Paul:

Thanks for the opportunity to respond to the important questions you have distributed to candidates for 2014 ACS President-Elect. My initial responses are listed after each of your questions below. If I am fortunate enough to be elected, I expect to be more deeply involved with the ACS Board of Directors and executive staff as we deal with several of the issues you have raised. I look forward to learning more about them during my “apprentice” year as President-Elect.

Regards,
Chuck

 

1. What are your thoughts about the historically low voter turnout (~15%) typical of ACS national elections?

A much higher voter participation rate in ACS elections would be a very healthy development. It would help ensure that issues of direct importance to members, not just to ACS’s governance volunteers, have the highest priority. Some ACS governance debates have an “inside the beltway” flavor that might seem strange to a majority of our members. However, this is not just and ACS problem, I belong to several other scientific societies with similar voter participation levels in their elections. Scientists and engineers are busy people and will not spend time on things that believe might not be very important or where they do not know what is at stake.

To do better we need to be sure the voting procedure is easy and quick and that the voters know what is at stake. I think that recent advances in on‐line voting are addressing the first requirement. I believe that greater transparency and more effective communication from the ACS Board of Directors, including the presidential succession members, might address the second requirement. If elected, I will advocate that ACS’s Board prepare and publish an annual “report card” to the members where they summarize the major issues they are addressing, what they have accomplished in the reporting year and what they intend to do in the coming year.

2. What is your stance regarding the fees that ACS Publications charges companies and universities to access journals?

I am very concerned about the escalation in journal subscription costs. Particularly their impact on both smaller and/or poorer academic institutions and smaller businesses, that need access to compete effectively, but really struggle to meet ever increasing fees. This is a serious problem in the U.S., but an even more serious problem in the developing world. For this and other reasons I believe that scientific publishing will soon be dominated by open access journals and that the ACS needs to work very hard to figure out how to meet that challenge while maintaining adequate revenue to sustain the quantity and quality of our publications.

3. What is your stance on the ACS’s executive compensation packages?

ACS’s senior executive staff is very well compensated. To some extent this is understandable because ACS is a large and complex organization that requires highly capable full‐time professional management, despite the uncompensated leadership and management skills of its thousands of volunteer members who play key governance roles. Also, ACS must compete with both for‐profit and other non‐profit science based organizations for executive talent, and their leaders’ compensation is generally at historic highs.

Organizational transparency is required to keep this issue in perspective and under control. I agree with Tom Barton, ACS’s current President‐Elect, who recommended an annual report on ACS executive staff compensation levels and their rationale, including available comparisons with similar positions at other major scientific societies, be published annually in C&E News, when responding to ChemBark on this question last year.

4. What are your thoughts on the recent ACS vs. Leadscope case? Do you believe that society records pertaining to the lawsuit—including legal fees—should be made public?

A similar question was asked of each of the four initial 2014 President‐ Elect candidates at our candidate’s forum during the 2013 Spring ACS National Meeting in New Orleans. I was the only candidate who stated directly that the Leadscope suit was a clear and costly mistake. It resulted in very serious monetary losses, for both judgment penalties and legal fees. It also tarnished the ACS’s reputation for fairness and sound business practices.

Since then, Bill Carroll, Chair of ACS’s Board of Directors did publish, in C&E News, a summary explanation of the case and its costs addressed to ACS members. At this point I am less interested in debating whether Bill’s summary was fully transparent than I am in working to ensure that both ACS’s professional and volunteer leaders learned from this mistake and that both will react more effectively if facing similar challenges in the future.

5. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the public perception of chemistry?

Many ACS members are skilled teachers, educating both future chemists and a much larger number of future voters and societal leaders. Recognizing their importance, I proposed the following in my candidate’s statement:

“ACS needs to continue helping educators at all levels to effectively present the beauty of fundamental chemistry. But we also need to help them convey the critical role chemistry can and must play to sustain and enhance our economy, security, health and environment. ACS’s education oriented staff and committees have started addressing this challenge; their efforts need to be supported and expanded, so the large fraction of ACS members who teach can be engaged and empowered.”

If elected, I will work hard with other interested members to promote this strategy.

6. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the employment situation for chemists?

I will work to ensure under-employed and unemployed chemists, as well as ACS members in general, are informed enough by ACS programming, publications, webinars, etc. to exploit the opportunities they will have to address critical societal challenges that require need better chemistry to be successfully addressed. My candidate’s statement describes the challenge of helping ACS members be prepared to “seize the future:”

“Nearly all of the critical challenges facing our world have significant chemical components. ACS must help our current and future members better understand how their vision and their skills can contribute to a more prosperous and sustainable future. The fact that too many ACS members are unemployed or under‐employed, while most global challenges need chemical insight and innovation to be addressed successfully, is a travesty. ACS needs to develop more effective ways to help current and future members orient their interests and capabilities to successfully address critical problems. ACS also needs to motivate both private and public investments to ensure resources exist to fund the science needed for progress.”

7. What is your favorite chemical compound with respect to color or smell?

My favorite chemical color is the blue-green patina of copper sulfate that I first noticed on the architectural surfaces in the coal-burning town where I grew up. That colorful corrosion first showed me that the atmosphere contained invisible, but powerful, chemicals that probably had other important effects beyond turning church roofs blue-green, leading to a career long fascination with atmospheric chemistry.

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?