opinion

The Seven (deadly) Sins of Science

Professor W. F. v. Gunsteren has written a very interesting essay for Angewandte entitled “The Seven Sins in Academic Behaviour in the Natural Sciences”. In this piece he defines the seven sins as follows (taken from the essay) 

  1.  A poor or incomplete description of the work, for example, publishing pretty pictures instead of evidence of causality.

  2. Failure to perform obvious, cheap tests that could confirm or repudiate a model, theory, or measurement, for example, to detect additional variables or       to show under which conditions a model or theory breaks down.
  3.  Insufficient connection between data and hypothesis or message, leading to lack of support for the message or over-interpretation of data, for example,   rendering the story more sensational or attractive.
  4.  The reporting of only favorable results, for example, reporting positive or desired (hoped for) results while omitting those that are negative.
  5.  Neglect of errors found after publication.

  6.  Plagiarism.

  7. The direct fabrication or falsification of data.

 

Take the incomplete description of the work. Here the scientific journal(s) come in for some criticism; mainly for the restriction of journal space this in turn leading to more date being squeezed into the supplementary material. Interestingly this material is usually freely available while the actual article it corresponds to sits behind a paywall. So in my humble opinion this is a complete waste of time. Either one or the other but not both. The pressure on journal space makes the paper difficult to understand, says Gunsteren. Here I can only agree with him. Actually I wonder just how many referees read the supplementary material. Now you may not believe it, but when I was refereeing papers I always read the stuff that the authors deemed not necessary to put in the paper, and often came across some interesting discrepancies buried deep within and in sometimes in conflict with the actual text in the paper.

It has been said, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. This statement is certainly reflected in today’s publications where colourful diagrams and pictures litter the publication. If this actually helps clarity is open to question. Perhaps the pictures and cartoons should be relegated to the supplementary material and the actual data transposed to the main body of the text.

Moving on to sin number 4 “reporting of favourable results”. Well we all like to have our theories correspond to the observations, placing data in the paper supporting the hypothesis is very helpful in this regard. However, the tendency to omit negative results does not help the cause of science in moving forward. A negative result is also a result, and it’s reporting would actually help other to avoid making the same mistakes. No doubt in these days of fierce competiveness for grant money publishing negative results probably does not help you to obtain funding.

The word plagiarism rears it’s ugly head in sin number 6. This, of course, has recently been the cause of some spectacular events. Here one can think of the two eminent politicians who were discovered to have borrowed results and theorems from others without proper referencing. Self-plagiarism is a contradiction in terms says Prof. Gunsteren. Here I agree with him, how can you steal your own work or written word. You can’t. One recent eminent case makes the point 1-3.

Data fabrication or falsification is certainly the worst offence a scientist can commit. It is a cardinal sin that often ends in tragedy. One just has to be a reader of the Blog Retraction Watch to see just how often this occurs. One notable event in the world of organic chemistry, published in the pages of Angewandte in 2006, was recently retracted by the author of the paper in agreement with the journal editor. You can read all about it here. Over the years there had been several critical remarks about this paper and I’m sure everyone is conversant with the story and I will not go into detail again. But the question(s) remains: Why did it take so long? Why was it only recently initiated? I guess we will never find out, but retracted it was.

Not many members of the lay community are aware of the amount of fabrication that appears to be going on. Research is usually funded from the public domain and it is scandalous to think that this money is being wasted when fabricated data is published. I’m not sure how this can be avoided, as such data can be very difficult to detect. So it is really up to the scientific community working with the journal editors to try and root this out. Not an enviable task. Perhaps a reproduction of these “Seven Sins” on the header page of every journal might jog the memories of the authors. It will be interesting to see if this post receives any useful comments.

References:

  1. R. Breslow, Tetrahedron Lett. 2011, 52, 4228 – 4232.
  2. R. Breslow, Isr. J. Chem. 2011, 51, 990 – 996.
  3. R. Breslow, J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2012, 134, 6887 – 6892.

 

By December 9, 2012 4 comments chemical education, opinion, science news

When practical jokes and chemistry don’t mix.

I’m all for making chemistry accessible to all, heck I even write another blog on the subject. So I’m generally pretty pleased to see chemistry in the main stream media and large blogs.  But this time a large science/tech blog, Gizmodo, has gone too far.

Yesterday Gizmodo published a guest post called “How to Use Basic Chemistry to Scare the Hell Out of Your Neighbours” from William Gurstelle.  Well that already sounds pretty sinister to me, but hey it’s almost Halloween, so maybe the post describes a few harmless pranks for a party, glow in the dark jelly perhaps?

But oh no, William Gurstelle has got grander ideas. Amongst other things he’s suggesting that you spike drinks with methylene blue! The result is that your party guests will starting peeing blue. Oh how we laughed on the way to the emergency room when the methylene blue cross reacted with some other medication causing serious damage to the central nervous system!  Granted Gurstelle does state “For the vast majority of people a tiny dose of methylene blue is harmless”. But I wonder how he knows which of his guests are going to just pee blue and which ones might end up in hospital after his little prank?

Gurstelle’s other suggestions aren’t any better. Spraying a mixture of ammonia and match heads around seems eminently stupid to me.

I can’t believe how astonishingly irresponsible Gizmodo has been in publishing this. They have a pretty big audience (with 1/2 million ‘likes’ on Facebook and a similar number of twitter followers), and so there is a pretty good chance someone will try and follow their instructions with potentially disastrous consequences.

DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!

Update:

I have sent an email to the editors Gizmodo expressing concerns. I’ll let you know of any response:

Dear Editor,
I would like to express my deep concern  about your article “How to Use Basic Chemistry to Scare the Hell Out of Your Neighbours”.  I feel that condoning the practical jokes described in the article is extremely irresponsible. Maybe you aren’t aware of the potential on consequences of some of these jokes, so let me help you.

Methylene blue is used to treat a number of medical conditions. And like any drug treatments it can interact with other pharmaceuticals resulting in serious side effects. In the case of methylene blue it should NEVER be taken with certain psychiatric medication because it can cause serious damage to the central nervous system.  This is spelled out here http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/ucm263190.htm .

You should note that this FDA article specifically states that Prozac reacts with methylene blue. In the US about 25 million people are prescribed Prozac annually, that accounts for about 10% of the adult population. So there is a very good chance that someone who has had a drink  been spiked with methylene blue will have an adverse effect.

The rest of the article is equally irresponsible. For example , squirting ammonia around could easily result in chemical burns to peoples’ eyes.

These are not just my concerns, comments on your article, your facebook page, twitter and reddit  make it clear that many people are very worried about your article.

Please do the responsible thing and take the article down.

I will post this email and your response on www.Chemistry-blog.com

Sincerely,

 

Update: Read other peoples’ reaction to Gizmodo’s lunacy here & here .

& the Royal Society of Chemistry have joined the condemnation of Gizmodo.

 

By October 27, 2012 2 comments chemical safety, opinion

Great Research is Dull

This post is contributed by Brandon Findlay, and the author of the blog “Chemtips

The best talks, the ones that I go to conferences hoping to see, are the least exciting.  They aren’t sleep inducing, far from it.  But the best talks don’t usually have a lot of flair.  There’s no brilliance at play, and nothing indicates that what I’m hearing will one day change the world.  Instead, I think, “Why doesn’t everyone do things like that?”

Strange as it may sound, such moments are (for me) what make great research stand out.  Great research is the end product of an idea so simple and straightforward that doing things any other way is nonsensical.  If you’re curious about understanding the interplay between drugs and antibiotic resistance, of course you should go isolate millennia old permafrost bacteria.  If you want to discover new reactions, semi-randomly mixing reagents is the way to go.  And if you want to make macrocycles, just dream up a reaction that holds the two ends together with electrostatic charge.  After the fact each idea makes perfect sense, and I wind up feeling an amnesiac; remembering things I didn’t even know I’d forgotten.

Good research (and a lot of flawed work), draws more press, and generally leads to a faint sense of awe.  Almost all of the upper tier total synthesis work is good research, as every sufficiently complicated structure stands out like an Everest on the horizon [1].  “Conquering” each structure grabs the headlines and extends the limits of what’s possible, usually leading to a new technique or two along the way.  But at the end of the day, what have we learned?   Dozens of small discoveries are made while climbing, but they are rarely broadly applicable.  From the top the climbers can see far, but their only concern is even greater mountains on the horizon.  The only follow-up to their work is to reach the same summit again, better [2].

It’s easy for a field to fall into a groove, using the same approach again and again, until every mountain—no matter how small—has at least one flag waving at the top.  Great research shifts your perspective, revealing new worlds and new peaks.  Once the blinders have been removed it’s hard not to look back and think, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

[1] Why climb Everest?  “Because it’s there.

[2] Higher yield, fewer steps, green, single pot, atom economy, protecting group free.  All different ways of seeking out some synthetic Platonic ideal [3].

[3] Disclaimer: Total synthesis requires dedication, intelligence, and perhaps a touch of madness.  I have nothing but respect for those who do it so well.

Lab Muppet Theory

Quick: What do Pinky and The Brain, Kirk and Spock, Bunsen and Beaker…and your research group all have in common?

Give up? They all subscribe to “Muppet Theory,” a very recent label on a very old phenomenon. As Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick explains, Muppet Theory reprises the age-old struggle between archetypes: Order fighting Chaos, Kermit against Animal, maybe even mustard vs. ketchup.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Pinky?" "I think so, Brain, but isn't Nietzsche a type of cheese?"

Nietzsche formalized this philosophy in 1872 (thanks, NPR!) with his Apollonian (order-seeking) and Dionysian (chaos-loving) personae, stating that true high art comes from the successful fusion of both aspects in one venture.  Well, scientists have argued these points for the last three centuries! Consider the following quotes from two chemistry legends:

“A tidy laboratory means a lazy chemist.” Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848)

“Fortune favors the prepared mind” – Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Right there, you have “Muppet Theory” in action. Lab Order Muppets (Brain, Spock, Bunsen) contribute careful data collection and deep analytical thinking, while the Lab Chaos Muppets (Pinky, Kirk, Beaker) stir the pot, following gut instincts and making wild assumptions. In my experience, Lab Order Muppets are department-builders, sturdy rocks in the storm that can manage conflicts. Lab Chaos Muppets have the devil’s luck, write roguish autobiographies, and often enjoy pop-culture “crossover” success.

So, which Lab Muppet type are you? I’ll disclose my “Muppet type” in the comments, but only after I hear from a few readers.

P.S. While researching this post, I came across this fantastic Agilent ad.