Archive for the ‘Scientific Writing’ Category

Who Cares?

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Another summer has come to an end, and we’re already two weeks deep into the fall semester. I spent part of my last day of summer freedom updating my calendar for the semester, and it was not pretty. So many classes, so many office hours, so many meetings.

I’ve seen a variety of approaches that professors take to the first day of class. Some just review the syllabus and call it a day. Some play icebreaking games and have students introduce themselves, while others dive right into the first chapter of the text. For me, I spend most of the first lecture addressing the question:

Why should I care about organic chemistry?

In broad strokes, we go over what we will learn in the class and why this information is important for scientists and health professionals. Here’s the opening slide from the deck:


If you can’t make a strong case why your class is important to students, why should they waste time studying it?

For me, the argument extends beyond why organic chemistry is important in and of itself. While I hope that some of my love of the subject rubs off, I am under no delusions that everyone will enjoy the class. Many students take it simply to fulfill a requirement for their degree or pre-health program. In these cases, I equate the class to Brussels sprouts. While the dish might be hard to stomach, eating it is good for you and necessary for mom to bring dessert. If you want to be a doctor, you’re going to have to do well in organic. So do it. If your career goal is what motivates you, let it motivate you to do well in orgo.

My view on “who cares?” or “why should I care?” extends to attendance. I don’t take attendance, because it’s irrelevant. My job as an instructor is to: (i) teach course material and (ii) judge student mastery of the material. If students see fit to invest their time in something other than my class, that’s just as likely a statement about the ineffectiveness of my lectures than a statement about their lack of motivation. The student is in the best position to judge my value to them as a teacher. If a student believes their time is better spent elsewhere, that’s fine. When grading, I’ll be calling balls and strikes the same way I would for all of the other students. Once again, attendance is irrelevant—except for mine.

Providing a compelling answer to “who cares?” is just as important outside of the classroom. When giving a talk, you need to invest a few minutes at the beginning to help your audience understand why your research is important. If you don’t, what’s going to stop people from checking their phones and tuning you out? If you find yourself having trouble explaining to your audience why your research is interesting or important, perhaps you should work on something else.

And when writing a paper, one of the first things you should address is why anyone should care about your work. If your reader doesn’t think your research is interesting or important, why should she read it? Why do so many papers in chemistry journals open with sentences like “Dullicin B is a toxin produced by the Ithacan slug, Limax cornellicus“?

Who cares?

Is your paper about the isolation of the compound? No. Do chemists care about mollusks? Not especially. So why would you waste prime real estate in your opening paragraph talking about these pieces of trivia? By all means, share these details, but do it later in the paper after you’ve already hooked the reader.

Journalists are taught this approach as the inverted pyramid, and they use it because readers are prone to move to the next story at any moment. Perhaps scientists would use a similar approach if anyone bothered to teach us about writing.

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:



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:



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



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



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…