Post Tagged with: "Totally Synthetic"

How Can Science Embrace Web 2.0: A Response to Rudy Baum

(This post is in response to the May 10 editorial in C&E News.  For the response to the April 19 editorial, click here)

First, I want to thank Rudy Baum, editor-in-chief of C&E News, for taking the time to respond to my commentary.  I know he probably has other issues he’d rather talk about on his editorial page, and I appreciate the engagement in this dialogue.

I’d like to continue the dialogue here and I hope to keep this conversation going – at least informally – for a long time.

Mr. Baum and I seem to agree that Web 2.0 is a part of science now; however, we may disagree on the merits of SciW2.0.  If you don’t believe SciW2.0 has arrived, consider that the fact that you are even privy to this conversation.  Not only do I have a W2.0 platform upon which I can comment on C&E News editorials, but within days the comments were populated with a who’s who of SciW2.0 leaders offering their opinions and helping shape the conversation.  And the conversation became so loud that it prompted an editor-in-chief to write an entire editorial in response to, essentially, a nobody in the chemistry world (let’s face it.  I certainly don’t count myself in the elite of chemistry, blind or not).  That all of these things can happen within a month – and without any face-to-face meetings between any of the players – proves the establishment of SciW2.0 as a communication tool.

Now, before we continue, I want to re-link to this blog post on Nature‘s Nascent blog.  In my opinion, this post is a must read for anyone who wants to engage this discussion.  It is a nice overview of SciW2.0, its strengths and especially its weaknesses.  Why there’s resistance to SciW2.0, why academic and industry leaders aren’t all buying in, and why he’s committed to making SciW2.0 successful.  It really is mandatory, and I’ll wait for you to click over and read it now.

(lounge music break) 🙂

While severely cautioning people about SciW2.0 (but not denouncing), Baum seems to want to walk a fine line.  It’s dangerous, it’s not a panacea, he reads blogs, he’s not an opponent of all W2.0, he agrees with author Jaron Lanier when he warns scientists not to adopt W2.0 ideals, and he finds proponents of W2.0 overenthusiastic.  Perhaps he is just cautioning scientists against ‘irrational exuberance’ when it comes to buying in to SciW2.0.  And those warnings would be well heeded (although I doubt we’re anywhere near the irrationally exuberant days of SciW2.0).  My question for Baum is: if he doesn’t think SciW2.0 is a panacea, does he think the current model for scientific communication (peer-reviewed journals) is a utopia?  And if not, what would he suggest happen differently?

As to his comment about the panacea of W2.0 and how it ‘changes everything’ as he says W2.0 proponents adamantly claim, I suspect he’s referring to Don Tapscott’s and Anthony Williams’ book Wikinomic: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.  I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment on it.  But I would imagine, as is true in other areas of life, when people mention ‘everything,’ they rarely mean things like cutting edge academic and scientific research.  Rather, I imagine people mean ‘everyday things,’ usually for everyday people.  I’ll link here to notes by Will Richardson on W2.0 and how it’s changing politics, government, journalism, and business, and how it is starting to change education.  So while it seems to be changing certain industries, I’ll admit that it’s not changing everything.  In fact, I don’t think any of the commenters on the other post thought so, either.  Pop science is not the same as pop culture and does not think the same way.  Comments made in one arena are not necessarily transferable to the other arena.

But rather than getting into a hair-splitting contest over who used what words and who meant what, I propose to move the conversation forward in a different direction.  My open question: What should SciW2.0 look like, and how will we know it’s successful?

W2.0 is ultimately a communication tool.  It harnesses the power and dexterity of the internet and allows people to communicate with each other in ways never before possible and on timescales never before possible.  In certain circles (politics, pop culture), if you’re not actively following the W2.0 scene, you’re way behind and have nothing to bring to the table.  Not so in SciW2.0.  If you’re following SciW2.0, you’re reading about and reacting to people’s analysis of things that happened in the past.  Missing a week or two won’t put you behind, because by and large you’ve already read the same papers and seen the same announcements.

I doubt that SciW2.0 will become an instant data/paper communicating tool for hard science anytime soon the way it has in other aspects of life.  I agree with the reasoning by Timo Hannay in the Nascent link:

[E]ven if the direct financial cost of sharing this information is low, the cost in terms of scooped findings, rejected papers and grant applications, and perhaps even diminished reputation could be very high. … It’s sad, but most scientists don’t publish in order to share results with their peers, they do so in order to secure grant funding and promotions. We know this because when we provide ways of sharing information that do not affect their likelihood of getting funding or promotions – such as preprint servers for biologists – most don’t use them.

There will always be a place for reactionary SciW2.0.  Communities of people talking about science and sharing ideas and information cannot hurt anyone.  But because there’s rarely breaking news coverage on SciW2.0 (see Totally Synthetic’s sodium hydride oxidation post for an example of breaking news coverage), the majority of chemists don’t seem to find the need to tune in regularly.

Before we’ll get large numbers of people on board, in my opinion, might we need to make SciW2.0 less reactionary and more innovative?   I think we’ve started seeing bits and pieces of that scattered throughout, and that might be how we make it more appealing to the science community at large.  I mentioned in the comments previously that ACS had their NanoTube contest, which asked users to upload original videos explaining ‘What is Nano’ in an clear and entertaining way.  Perhaps this is the way science utilizes W2.0 in a productive manner.  Demystifying aspects of science to make it accessible to anyone curious about science, but perhaps without the training.

But, as the Nascent link alludes to, other types of crowd sourcing have not been as successful.  Nature‘s open peer-review system posted a small number of ‘opt in’ papers online and asked the crowd to review and comment on them before being accepted to the journal.  The open peer-review process happened concurrently with the ‘typical’ closed, anonymous peer-review process.  As noted if you listen to the audio version of the talk, it added no apparent value, but a lot more work for the Nature folks, so they abandoned the experiment.  I suspect it was just ahead of its time.

We may look to the results of a current crowd sourcing experiment to see if the time is right yet.  The Haystack, one of CENtral Science’s child blogs, reports on the expansion of the Pool for Open Innovation against Neglected Tropical Diseases.  In this experiment, scientists dump patented information into an open pool, and different users around the world are able to access the data to try to make progress on treatments for neglected diseases.  It will be interesting to watch that story unfold over the next few years.

I guess I don’t really know what SciW2.0 needs to look like to be successful. … But I bet I know a way to get some of the brightest minds in the field together to think about it communally! 🙂  I’d love to hear from people what their ideas are for the future of SciW2.0 and how to make it more commonplace in the field.

Finally, I’d like to say to Baum (and everyone else reading), if you haven’t read Who Moved My Cheese?, then pick it up from the library on the way home tonight and read it.  It will take maybe an hour, and it can be read in the easy chair after dinner while watching 24 if you’d like.  The cheese is moving, Rudy, I just don’t know where to, yet.

By May 10, 2010 8 comments chem 2.0, opinion

A Word on Research Misconduct

Dig out your dictionary and look up the word “hyperbole” (I know, it might be a while since you’ve last had English class)—exaggerated statement or claims not intended to be taken seriously.  I tend to hyperbolize a bit when I replay an incident that happened at the bar or in class, which I attribute to the fact that I’m a terrible storyteller.  I think we all do it to a certain extent.  I know I’ve once said something to the effect of, “It was the greatest movie, ever…in the history of humans.”  A hyperbole at its finest.

While most common vernacular is riddled with hyperboles, I’d argue that the majority of intellectual study makes an effort to stay away from gross exaggerations (with history being the exception).  In particular, science is the observation and study of the physical world, and it leaves no room for hyperboles.  Just facts.  For example, if you mix an aqueous solution of silver nitrate with an aqueous solution of sodium chloride it is a fact that a precipitate will form.  There are no equivocations about scientific facts.  Though, science sometimes falls short when making assumptions that connect two or more facts into one coherent theory or proposal.  Still, these assumptions, en route to a new theory, are usually reasonable if not simplistic (i.e. Occam’s razor).

What about bad data?  Of course, there are ways to make our raw data more “natural” without exaggerating.  In the event that we have to plot data points, for example, as scientists we can exclude data that “doesn’t belong.”  We call these anomalies “outliers” and there is statistical rationale as to why a stray might be “bounced” from the data set without any bias to the result.  But even in these cases, the data point is often so far away from the others that including it might be a detriment to a fact about Mother Nature.

What irritates me to no extent is a term I refer to as “hyperbolized research.”  We have all seen these situations before: yields that are bumped a good 5 to 10 to 50%, data that is fit just right, patent procedures that are not reproducible.  Why are these practices tolerated?  Contemporary science is themed “publish or perish,” which essentially means that if you are not producing enough results (nevermind quality) you will soon be unemployed.  I recall hearing stories about early 20th century scientists who studied science without the proverbial gun to their respective heads and still made great findings.  A lot of these experiments were groundbreaking, marvelous and truly beautiful.

It’s no surprise that this issue of “publish or perish” rears its ugly head in science.  Society is incredibly fast-paced, and science is certainly trying to keep up.  But, it’s really hard to do so with a tiny, bankrupt research group (where most if not all members are teaching) versus a behemoth firm with hundreds of years of experience and millions of dollars of materials to use. 

So, what do groups do to keep pace (or at least appease the boss)?  “How did you do with that reaction you couldn’t get to work last week?”  “Um…I got 98% yield with 95% ee.”  “Great, let’s write up a manuscript and submit to JACS.”  I’ve heard stories of “big name” research groups who’s members purposely inflate their yields to keep “the man” happy.  In these cases, researchers keep two sets of lab notebooks: the real one (usually under lock and key with the actual experimental results) and the boss’ one (usually kept in the open, so the boss can see how his researcher got a 90% yield on chemistry that is next to impossible to reproduce).  The bottom line is that papers get published, lectures are given and proposals are funded—criminality is rewarded.  How is this right?  Furthermore, how is it fair to another researcher who needs to repeat the results?

Have we not learned anything from the Bell Lab incident?  For those not familiar, Hendrik Schön was a groundbreaking physicist working for Bell Labs in the late 1990’s.  He was purportedly on par to win a Nobel Prize with his creation of an “organic molecular transistor.”  The papers describing this work were met with criticism in the scientific community and at some point (c. 2001), Bell Labs launched an internal investigatory committee to examine Schön’s work.  Their final report ultimately alleged 24 accounts of misconduct that were essentially fit into three categories: “Substitution of data,” “unrealistic precision of data,” “Results that contradict known physics.”  In the end, he was ultimately stripped of his doctoral degree.  But think about the repercussions of not investigating Schön’s findings.  Had Schön’s work not been policed, potentially millions of dollars would’ve been invested into falsified research.  While I’m aware that Bell Labs was recently closed, without insinuating anything, it makes me wonder if this Schön incident had any weight in the lab’s termination.

Rex Dalton covered the aftermath of this incident along with several other examples of research misconduct (Nature 2002, 420, 728-729).  He ultimately offered up the following observation:

“Science may be self-correcting, but sometimes it is a painfully slow process.”

Perhaps he’s right.  Sure, several papers are going to be questioned in the future.  And of those papers, a few might be blatant lies.  How much time is it going to take to correct these mistakes?  According to Corey: “Occasionally, blatantly wrong science is published, and to the credit of synthetic chemistry, the corrections usually come quickly and cleanly.”  Case in point?  The hexacyclinol incident that was excellently covered by C&EN and by a couple of fellow bloggers: Derek Lowe and Paul Docherty.  In this case, there was a rapid turn around (possibly due to public interest).  However, this case might be the exception.  It could be years before a questionable project is proven incorrect.

I know…you want me to provide a solution.  Maybe there isn’t an immediate, reasonable answer.  But, alas, here’s what I’ve uncovered: there are a few wonderful articles in J. Chem. Ed. about scientific misconduct, which both hover around the LBNL and Bell Lab incidents (see: J. Chem. Ed. 2002, 79, 1391; ibid. 2005, 82, 1521).  The authors’ messages (albeit bluntly or implied) were that ethics and empathy should be at the forefront in the early years of scientific training.  Some people cannot discern between right and wrong and teachers should do their jobs by teaching students about the rights and responsibilities of being a scientist.  While I did not receive formal training on scientific misconduct, I was given a lambasting for bordering on plagiarism my freshman year of college.   I learned my lesson early—you and your lab partner need to keep separate lab notebooks.  Perhaps this experience has formed me into the scientist that I am today (I’m anal-retentive about my lab notebook). 

I guess there is a remaining question still looming.  What sparked this rant about “doing the right thing”?  I’ve been repeating experiments for the past couple of months that were reported to be exceptionally clean (requiring no chromatography) and high yielding.  Most of these reactions have tanked—miserably—even with exceptional preparation and precision.  So, I’m painstakingly re-optimizing experimental procedures so someone else doesn’t have to.  It’s taking a while—much longer than it reasonably should.  But, hey, “sometimes (correcting science) is a painfully slow process.” 

By October 6, 2008 6 comments Uncategorized


Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Belgian Organic Synthesis Symposium (BOSS) in Ghent. This included 4-5 lectures a day, poster presentations and of course sightseeing! The speaker list comprised big names, such as Baran, Carreira, Denmark, Du Bois, Fürstner, Hartwig, Shibasaki and Trost. I’m not going into detail about the lectures, as this seems to be covered in Tot. Synth. You can see the full programme here.

I can say as much: the conference was really great, if you ever get a chance to go there, do so! Everything was well-organized, most of the lectures were highly interesting, and so were the posters. In addition, Ghent is a beautiful town that is well worth a visit.

By July 21, 2008 7 comments Uncategorized