Archive for the ‘Scientific Writing’ Category

Papers That Got Off to a Good Start

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

This week, an interesting discussion on Twitter was sparked by the publication of this paper in JACS:

Jarvo2015_400

 

That’s a great first sentence to a paper, and soon people chimed in with other memorable examples.

 

Tehshik Yoon pointed out this review on C-H activation as his favorite:

Bergman1995_400

 

…which Nicolas Fanget countered with a microbiology paper from 2000 that begins with a quote from Monty Python’s Flying Circus:

Kell2000_400

 

My personal favorite belongs to the man himself, R.B. Woodward, who began a 1963 paper with the simple exclamation, “Strychnine!”:

Woodward1963_400

 

Are there any other chemistry papers out there with memorable openings?

Thesis Acknowledgments

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

ed_academic_bigChemjobber has a post up asking readers what information they put in the acknowledgments sections of their dissertations.

I have always been fascinated by whom grad students choose to acknowledge. As a first-year, I used to pull old theses off the shelves of our group room and read the acknowledgments sections from front-to-back. Some were long; some were incredibly terse. Some were over-effusive in praise; some had cutting zingers. But every acknowledgments section was interesting and, I felt, gave me some sense of the personality of the student whose research had helped lead the group to where it was.

About once a year, I would go to the chemistry library and similarly indulge my curiosity on a grander scale. I would climb the stairs to the balcony where old theses were kept and hunt for interesting names: Nobel laureates, current professors, recent friends who’d graduated, and grad students present at remarkable events (e.g., when Corey won the Nobel, when various professors had moved labs, and when Jason Altom took his life). I’d flip through their work, admire the figures, and always finish by reading the entirety of their acknowledgments. It was fascinating, and I cherished the glimpse of what each scientist was feeling at my point in their career.

People often joke that your acknowledgments are the only part of your thesis anyone will read carefully, including the professors on your committee. But that isn’t a joke—it’s the truth. When I was writing my thesis, I viewed writing the acknowledgments section as a wonderful opportunity to thank everyone from my educational career, past and present. It was six-and-a-half pages of joy to write.

And since the dissertation guidelines at my school allowed students to include epigraphs, I twisted a line of a famous poem such that it would serve, in my estimation, as a sufficiently veiled comment on my sentiments at the time.

To this day, I keep a copy of my dissertation on my iPad and I read the acknowledgments section every four months or so. Yes, I’ve almost memorized it by now, but reading it again always brings back a flood of happy, sad, and funny memories.

Sometimes, you need that.

Editor Discusses F—ing in Nature

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

nchemfc_kit_250Stu Cantrill, editor of Nature Chemistry, has performed a profoundly beneficial service for our field: he has tracked the use of the word “fuck” (and its variations) throughout the 146-year history of the esteemed journal Nature.

Stu’s interest in the subject was piqued after seeing bollocks in a recent edition of the journal. He traced the first pair of ‘bollocks’ back to 1998.

Stu was able to find two innocent ‘Fuck’s in 1937 and 1985—they were proper nouns—before the first virulent ‘fuck’ appeared in 1989. This stuff is fascinating; check it out.

Stu takes a look at many other dirty words, and his analysis includes the expected reference to the infamous copper nanotube (CuNT) paper in ChemComm. Albeit unintentional, there is no better example of how ridiculous the acronym scene has become in science. I had several conversations in grad school excoriating some of the more creative acronyms devised by labmates.

And finally, this is an excellent opportunity to boast that I hold the honor of being the first person to write the F-word in Nature Chemistry, if you don’t count the hundreds of times fourth-year graduate students have scrawled it in the margin of papers after getting scooped.

That’s an accomplishment sure to impress the tenure committee.

A Disturbing Note in a Recent SI File

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

ChemBark InvestigatesA recently published ASAP article in the journal Organometallics is sure to raise some eyebrows in the chemical community. While the paper itself is a straightforward study of palladium and platinum bis-sulfoxide complexes, page 12 of the corresponding Supporting Information file contains what appears to be an editorial note that was inadvertently left in the published document:

Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis…

This statement goes beyond a simple embarrassing failure to properly edit the manuscript, as it appears the first author is being instructed to fabricate data. Elemental analyses would be very easy to fabricate, and long-time readers of this blog will recall how fake elemental analyses were pivotal to Bengu Sezen’s campaign of fraud in the work she published from 2002 to 2005 out of Dalibor Sames’ lab at Columbia.

The compound labeled 14 (an acac complex) in the main paper does not appear to correspond to compound 14 in the SI. In fact, the bridged-dichloride compound appears to be listed an as unlabeled intermediate in Scheme 5, which should raise more eyebrows. Did the authors unlist the compound in order to avoid having to provide robust characterization for it?

ChemBark is contacting the corresponding author for comment, and his response will be posted in full when we receive it.

This story points to very real concerns that young researchers can be instructed and pressured to fabricate data. Would a scientist be so concerned that a journal would reject his manuscript over a piece of missing characterization data that he’d feel pressure to make something up?

Expect more as this story develops…

PowerPoint Peeves and Chemistry Arrows

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

ChemBark’s ongoing series on PowerPoint advice continues with a look at another one of my irrational pet peeves: the “fat” reaction arrow.

If you are writing reactions in a text box, chances are you’ll use the “rightwards arrow”, Unicode character 2192 (hex). You will probably also choose a font without serifs, because slide text (including atomic symbols) looks better without serifs. Unfortunately, this is how the rightwards arrow is rendered in many sans-serifs fonts:

fat_arrow

I know this is a matter of personal taste, but there is something about that reaction arrow that turns me off. It’s too fat. The same character in Times New Roman looks much better. She has a graceful elegance relative to her Calibri cousin. Consequently, if you want to stick to Unicode characters for writing out reactions, I advocate writing everything in a sans-serif font, then changing the arrow to Times New Roman. You many also need to adjust its font size to make it look right:

fat_arrow_fix

And while we’re on the subject of arrows, there is no need to use the double-headed arrow symbol U+2194 (↔) to indicate an equilibrium. Remember, the double-headed arrow typically separates resonance structures. Instead, use U+21c4 (⇄) or U+21cc (⇌). These characters don’t always appear on the maps in Office, but you can copy and paste the symbols into your text. A full listing of arrow characters is here.