Articles by: Chemjobber

A guide for reporters on the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

(cross-posted with Chemjobber)

Somewhere in the good ol’ US of A, USA (DON’T HAVE TO CREDIT CHEMJOBBER):

3 chemistry professors, Richard Heck (formerly of the University of Delaware), Ei-ichi Negishi (Japanese descent, of Purdue University) and Akira Suzuki (Japanese descent, of Hokkaido University) were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistryfor palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis” by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. These are techniques for bonding (or connecting) smaller carbon-based molecules together to make larger carbon-based molecules.

Creating carbon-carbon bonds can be difficult and can sometimes involve using dangerous, impractical or environmentally unfriendly reaction chemistry; the techniques pioneered by Suzuki, Heck, and Negishi make these reactions simple enough for novice chemists to perform and practical enough that they can be run on multi-ton scale. Since their introduction in the late 1970’s, palladium-catalyzed chemical reactions have touched every part of the field of chemistry, including life-saving drugs, plastics and organic LEDs. The modern pharmaceutical industry would not be able to produce many of their products without palladium-catalyzed reactions.

The prize has been long-awaited by many chemists. “It’s about damn time”, said Chemjobber, a very junior synthetic organic chemist. “I don’t know what it took to get those Swedes to finally get their thumb out.” It is believed that part of the reason is the rules of the Nobel Prize: there can be no more than 3 awardees at one time, and they all must be living. Many chemists contributed to the field of palladium-catalyzed reactions. Professors Sonogashira, Tsuji, and Kumada could have all been part of this award, and the chemistry Nobel committee is notoriously controversy-shy.

Professor Heck has retired and currently lives with his wife in the Philippines. Professor Negishi is still teaching and research at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Professor Suzuki is still teaching and researching at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

(CJ here: Man, this is harder than you would think.)

How many ways can you say something without plagiarizing?

In a recent post by Derek Lowe on a Chinese journal’s finding that 31% of its submitted papers contained plagiarized material, an editor for a scientific journal noted in the comments that he randomly selected a Tetrahedron Letters paper from a developing country and Googled the first sentence. That sentence (“Multicomponent reactions (MCRs) are important for generating high levels of diversity…”) shows up in very similar form in three different papers, all from institutions in Iran and China. In two of the papers, the second sentence of the paper is exactly the same, all 22 words.

Also, compare the two first sentences, the first by Shaterian et al.[1] and the second by Adib et al.[2]  The highlighted words are the same.

Multi-component reactions (MCRs) are important for the achievement of high levels of brevity and diversity. They allow more than two simple and flexible building blocks to be combined in practical, time-saving one-pot operations, giving rise to complex structures by simultaneous formation of two or more bonds, according to the domino principle.”

Multicomponent reactions (MCRs) are important for generating high levels of diversity, as they allow more than two building blocks to be combined in practical, time-saving one-pot operations, giving rise to complex structures by simultaneous formation of two or more bonds.

While cutting and pasting other people’s introductory sentences is certainly embarrassing and almost certainly plagiarism, there is some difficulty in summarizing a set of facts in a different way each time. It certainly can be done — below are three different labs’ introductory sentences for chemistry towards the total synthesis of the azaspiracids, which are marine natural products. Again, the same words are highlighted in red.
Nicolaou et al.[3]: “The azaspiracids are a group of notorious marine neurotoxins whose accumulation in mussels causes serious human poisoning known as azaspiracid poisoning syndrome (AZP) upon their consumption.”
Geisler, Nguyen and Forsyth[4]: “The azaspiracids are remarkable natural products that combine a unique, complex structure with an acute and perhaps chronic human health hazard.”
Evans et al.[5]: “(-)-Azaspiracid-1 is a structurally complex marine neurotoxin that is implicated in seafood poisoning.”
You can see that Nicolaou, Forsyth and Evans all have specific ideas they’re trying to get across: what the compound is, where it comes from and what it does to people. But they’ve all managed to have relatively few words actually overlap.

Is this sort of cutting-and-pasting ‘real’ plagiarism? — it’s just the quotation of a particularly useful string of words, one might assert, not the stealing of ideas. I don’t think this is a very good way of thinking about things, but I can’t quite reason why. In addition, I doubt that any of the authors of the MCR papers were native speakers of English. Clearly, that plays some role in their choice to cut and paste; again, not an excuse, but another contributing factor. I’m trying to see if I can come up with extenuating circumstances, but I just can’t.

My adviser in graduate school held out “the same five words in a row” as a general rule of thumb for how to spot and/or avoid plagiarism — what about the same five ideas in a row? What do you think, reader? How do you avoid cutting and pasting? And what should we do (if we should) to stop this sort of thing? Do we need TurnYourJournalSubmissionIn.Com?

1. Shaterian, H.R.; Yarahmadi, H.; Ghashang, M. Arkivoc. 2007, 16, 298-313.
2. Adib, M.; Mahdavi, M.; Bagherzadeh, S.; Zhu, L.-G.; Rahimi-Nasrabadi, M. Tet. Lett. 2010, 51, 27-29.
3. Nicolaou, K.C.; Frederick, M.O.; Petrovic, G.; Cole, K.P.; Loizidou, E.Z. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2006, 45, 2609-2615.
4. Geisler, L.K.; Nguyen, S.; Forsyth, C.J. Org. Lett., 2004, 6, 4159-4162.
5. Evans, D.A.; Kvaerno, L.; Mulder, J.A.; Raymer, B.; Dunn, T.B.; Beauchemin, A.; Olhava, E.J.; Juli, M.; Kagechika, K. AngewChem. Int. Ed. 2007, 46, 4693-4697.
By September 17, 2010 13 comments general chemistry, science policy

(Visible) scars of chemistry

Another mark of the chemist?Mitch’s post showing the video of “the mark of the chemist” reminds me of one of the most visible remembrances I have of graduate school: the scar on one of my middle fingers (see left.)

On a lovely Saturday in the lab (my music playing, no one else around), I dropped a Dewar flask from a shelf onto the lab bench. Along with the pop that announced its destruction, I saw that my finger was bleeding. My adviser brushed off my protestations that I was fine with “[CJ], you’re bleeding all over the floor.” He was right and off I went to the campus health center.

It’s been at least 6 years since I’ve had the scar. It’s healed, but left the interesting black mark that you see and a lump that I suspect may be embedded glass. But when I think about chemistry and potential dangers that I could face, all I have to do is look down at my hands.

UPDATE: The Curious Chemistry Grad Student shows off a couple nice burns.

By August 1, 2010 12 comments chemical safety

Cargo cult science in the Gulf, news at 11

Credit: WKRG/Mediaite

The Gulf oil tragedy has already shown the ignorance of some reporters about chemistry. However, a Mobile TV station and their chemist has taken it to new heights when they blamed the oil spill for (likely) bad glassware.

WKRG is a local TV news station in Mobile, Alabama; they sent intrepid reporter Jessica Taloney to collect samples of local beach water. (See video of story below.) They asked a local lab to analyze the samples for oil and grease; the lab owner and analytical chemist, Bob Naman, suggested that the level of oil and grease should be pretty close to 5 ppm.

Of course, all the samples showed the presence of oil and grease, with amounts up to 200 ppm. While these results are not particularly surprising, the result of one sample was not obtainable because the chemist claimed that the sample exploded during the extraction. Rather than blame the broken separatory funnel on a star crack or a lack of venting, the chemist said that “We think that it most likely happened due to the presence of methanol, or methane gas, or the presence of the dispersant Corexit.”

No. This is just wrong. Having actually shaken separatory funnels full of mixtures of water and flammable solvents (including methanol!) on a daily or weekly basis for about 10 years now, I have yet to see any of them explode. Surfactants like Corexit are not known for being particularly explosive, especially at room temperature.

I think it is far more likely to be coincidental; in addition, wouldn’t a true explosion have left much less of the funnel? Heaven help us. (When the reporter obtained another sample from the same area 4 days later, the oil and grease concentrations were at the 1 ppm level. Not explosive enough? (That’s a joke, non-chemists.))