Guest Post: “Screw anonymous—Maybe? Reclaim synthesis—Definitely!” by Fredrik von Kieseritzky
Today's guest poster is Fredrik von Kieseritzky, whose sense of humor is evident in his posts at Synthetic Remarks. You may recall his open letter to a certain Scripps Research Institute organic chemist. Today, Fredrik writes about anonymity on blogs. It's a familiar discussion point to followers of the chemistry blogosphere, but it takes on new dimensions given current events.
Right before turning off the computer and getting ready to hit the sack last night, in the middle of brushing my teeth, I got sucked in reading Anonymous Science and the Survival of Blog Syn over at Rich Apodaca’s blog Depth-First—and it got me thinking. In fact, it left me sleepless for most the night. Thank you very much, Rich.
For those of you who haven't read it yet or know what Blog Syn is all about in the first place, allow me to start off with a recap of the action: For a considerable amount of time, chemists have been complaining on social media and elsewhere that many published syntheses are difficult to reproduce, and that we are seeing a worrying decline in quality of the experimental details. This is partly attributed to the fact that experimentals tend to be buried in the supporting information of the articles. This goes for almost all of today's foremost chemistry journals. Not good!
Another important factor: How likely is it that an editor, reviewer or referee will scrutinize 50 or so pages of supporting information as vividly as the jam-packed 3-4 pages that make up the main act? Rhetorical question.
These unfortunate developments are indisputable facts, and the onus is on all of us to fix it. As everyone is painfully aware, organic synthesis has taken a couple of serious blows over the past decade, and we could all benefit from positive news in our field for a change.
I say: Reclaim synthesis! Put the experimental details back where they belong. Nature Publishing Group, Wiley, Elsevier, RSC and ACS—do you read me? Does everybody understand how important this is? And of course, we authors must become much better at reporting exactly how we performed our reactions. We may never ever do the same reaction again, but if what we write is good and true, then of course others will want to apply our new and awesome methodologies. That's a no-brainer.
To tackle the main issue—reproducibility, a cornerstone of science—a team of already well-established chemistry bloggers decided to finally do something about it, and a couple of months ago they came up with and executed the most brilliant plan. They would take recently reported reactions from pristine journals, especially demanding ones with (suspiciously) high yields, and try to reproduce these in their own hands. They would post their findings online for everyone to see and comment on, not the least the authors themselves. The result is a blog named Blog Syn, if it has escaped anyone's attention.
So far, so very good, I thought. Apparently, so did Derek Lowe and Nature Chemistry too. I had few if any objections until I read Rich's post. Since I have been in close contact with the guys behind the scenes for a long time, it just never occurred to me that three out of four Blog Synners (sinners?) are using pen names.
Now, herein lies the huge problem, and I agree with parts of what Rich says. Anonymous witnesses are for good reasons not allowed in courts of law (in civilized countries). Authors are never anonymous, obviously, so why should they have to respond to accusations put forth by nameless plaintiffs?
If only things were that simple, though. There exists many a good reason for not using your own name when blogging. Instead of turning this into another list thread, I will name just one, speaking from own experience: Corporate oppression and excessively restrictive non-disclosure agreements are the main culprits. The typical big company today is scared out of its mind of what their employees say or do on their own time, on the verge of clinical paranoia, if I may say so.
Moreover, I am sure academic researchers have equally good reasons for not wanting to go full disclosure online. There are probably as many reasons as there are anonymous blogs and bloggers. As long as you don't break the law, everyone has the right to free speech, anonymous or not.
But—science is different from most other things we humans do. Science reaches its full potential only in an open and fully transparent environment. If you want to engage in science, in a blog or anywhere, believe me, you will get so much more cred and attention if you take off your masks. Think about it. I mean, already in the third post, Blog Syn got action from the Big Kahuna, Phil Baran. I must say I admire his courage and desire to set things right, even when he can't be perfectly sure who he is talking to.
I said I agreed with parts of Rich's post. I totally get the take-home message, but it came out a little harsh, didn't it? It is easy for you and I to say everybody should use their real names when engaging in scientific discussion, be it on- or off-line, because, you and I had already decided to have it that way when we ventured out into the unknown. But please, show some respect to others who might not enjoy the same liberty and still wish to contribute.
This is my main message: I have personally never had to regret blogging under my real name. It was a little scary at first, but for me it has worked out just fine. I wholeheartedly recommend it!
To wrap up:
* Hey Phil, write better experimentals in the first place.
* Anonymous science writers, at least consider going public. It's probably worth it.
* Corporate America, you need to relax. Seriously.
* Everybody, insist on having your experimentals included in the main part of the next article you submit. Supporting information is for spectra. Synthesis is core.