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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.

16 Comments

  • Mar 4th 201310:03
    by Carmen Drahl

    Thanks for posting about anonymity. Even though blogs have been around for some years now, I think researchers are still at the beginning of figuring anonymity out. Journalists have managed to figure out how to work with anonymous sources- who’ve helped make major stories possible. I think eventually folks will come to an understanding.

  • Mar 4th 201310:03
    by See Arr Oh

    At the risk of repeating myself, “anonymous” should not be misconstrued with “pseudonymous.” Anonymous (“not named or identified”) connotes differently than writing under a pseudonym, which is what we chem-bloggers do.

    A pseudonym is still a name, for good or ill, which others judge for its assumed activities. We often encounter pseudonyms in other fields (art, literature, film, activism, design), and the persons assuming them still benefit / suffer accordingly.

  • Mar 4th 201315:03
    by DrFreddy

    Pseudonyms come in several flavors. When we say “The Donald”, we know his real name is Donald Trump. When we say “Chemjobber,” we do not know his real name. The latter is anonymous, i.e. not identified.

    Whether pseudonyms are common in general or not is irrelevant to this discussion.

    The key question remains: Is someone using a pseudonym as credible as someone who uses his real name in a scientific debate or not?

  • Mar 4th 201317:03
    by Jyllian Kemsley

    I’ve been around the Internet for so long that I honestly don’t think twice about anonymous/pseudonymous posters. While some may stay anonymous just for the freedom to be nasty, others have what I think most people would acknowledge to be good reasons for not using a “real” name (is Madonna’s real name Madonna or Louise Ciccone?). Current or future employers aside, I have one friend who uses a pseudonym online because she doesn’t want a stalker to relocate her. Regardless of the situation, I think that anonymity/pseudonymity allows some people to enrich discussions in ways that they might not otherwise be able to do for fear of reprisal.

    In any case, I hope that people keep open minds about Blog Syn and its contributors. Ideally what matters is whether they do good work and promote useful discussion rather than whether “real” names are attached to the posts.

    For those who haven’t read them, Janet Stemwedel and Scicurious have done some excellent posts on pseudonymous blogging:
    http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/2008/10/22/why-would-anybody-want-to-blog/
    http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/2008/04/17/a-dialogue-on-pseudonymity-per/
    http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious/2011/07/24/on-the-issue-of-pseudonymity/

  • Mar 4th 201319:03
    by Glen Ernst

    The semantics of pseudonymous versus anonymous matter to me less than content. Unless you have verification otherwise, what appears to be a real name might actually be a pseudonym. Either way, it doesn’t make a difference to me as long as the person has something interesting to say and is willing to listen to what others say. I chose to use my real name when I started to participate, as I was in the middle of a job search at the time—and being anonymous was the last thing I needed.

    That, and all the cool pseudonyms were already taken.

  • Mar 4th 201321:03
    by Rich Apodaca

    Fredrik,

    Thank you for discussing my article. I’m sorry it kept you from sleeping, but am glad you took it in an interesting direction.

    “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.”

    Unfortunately, I’m afraid my message has been misunderstood.

    My post never said that the BlogSyn authors (or any other anon|pseudonymous chemist) should reveal their legal names. Far from it. I noted in my article that the identities of the BlogSyn authors are irrelevant to any discussion of the science involved (although this should be self-evident). In the comments section, I wrote that BlogSyn could continue to be a success even if every post were anonymous.

    In other words, I didn’t write what you apparently attribute to me.

    What my post tried to do is point out some of the complications and limitations for authors and for the BlogSyn effort if anon|pseudonymous reviews continue to be the main type of content.

    The main big-picture limitation is that anon|pseudonymous scientific writing nullifies a strong motivator for authors – recognition and the potential for career advancement that comes with it. If BlogSyn is to succeed on its current path, some other compelling reward would need to be found to justify the effort (and risk) on the part of contributors. The BlogSyn team may well find it, in which case I’d be delighted. They may have already found it – which would be very significant and positive for chemistry in my view.

    My article also pointed out a potentially grave consequence of anon|pseudonymous posting that you allude to in your piece and which chemists should be aware of _before_ participating. Industrial chemists (and potentially some academic chemists as well) may be parties to intellectual property agreements with their employers. Many of these agreements are quite encompassing.

    A well-meaning chemist may decide to take the anon|pseudonymous route to eliminate complications from such agreements. They might post to a site such as BlogSyn information that their employer deems valuable and legally theirs. I could spin any number of plausible scenarios where seemingly small actions snowball, leading to a company investigation, discovery of the chemist’s identity, legal action, loss of job and potentially career as well. It would be a disaster for the chemist and possibly their online collaborators as well. I’m speaking generally here, not specifically about the BlogSyn team, with whom I’ve had no personal contact with beyond public online discussion.

    Despite the downsides, nothing should prevent any chemist from contributing scientific work under an assumed name or no name at all, provided they have the right to do so.

  • Mar 4th 201322:03
    by Bethany Halford

    Dr. Freddy, I don’t think adding experimental details back into papers is the answer to reviving or reclaiming organic synthesis. Rather, I think room in a paper would be better spent justifying why developments in synthesis are important to the world (ideally something beyond, ‘we might be able to make new drug candidates with this reaction’). To me, too many organic synthesis papers seem written for an insular group rather than for the chemistry community at large.

  • Mar 5th 201301:03
    by Brandon Findlay

    Science reaches its full potential only in an open and fully transparent environment.

    Science works best when all relevant information is available, and the conclusions are free from bias. It’s the photos and the quality of the experimental details on BlogSyn make me confident in the results, not the identity of the authors.

    The value in an offline identity is the person’s pedigree (institutional or publication based). Because the authors of BlogSyn use pen names, there is no way for them to make an appeal to authority, or to use their stature to influence opinion. The critiques live or die on their own merits, as they should.

  • Mar 5th 201307:03
    by DrFreddy

    Rich,

    I am glad you came back here and sorted a few more things out. Also, I see a lot of action in the comments to your post, where even more things have been settled.

    You have to admit, though, that your post was quite harsh. No? “…and the survival of…” makes it sound like Death is lurking.

    For the record, we are all big Blog Syn fans, regardless, aren’t we?
    —–
    Bethany,

    I disagree. Synthesis IS core. You are completely right though that we synthesis chemist could do a much better job explaining why this is so.

  • Mar 5th 201309:03
    by Stu

    Well, I guess I’ll respond on behalf of journal editors and Nature Chemistry specifically (for those who don’t know, I should disclose that I am the editor of Nature Chemistry).

    Experimental details back in the main body of a paper? Hmm. No. Well, no in most cases. If the subject of the paper is specifically about methodology and how changing this or that variable alters the outcome of the reaction, then yes, that is what *should* be discussed in the main body of a paper. Do we want to see experimental details and characterisation for each individual modification and experimental run in the main part of the paper – well, I don’t. Do that and you’ll have very long and very dull papers. So, I’m with Beth on this. Put the technical details in the supp info and tell the story of the work in the paper.

    And besides what’s wrong with putting it in the supp info? The stuff is in there, read it! If authors don’t write detailed enough supp info, that is a problem, of course, but it is not one you fix by putting the details in the main paper. And have you thought about the fact that most supp info is outside the subscriber paywall and so is freely available?

  • Mar 5th 201311:03
    by DrFreddy

    Stu, how nice of you to pop by. Quick comment: For a great many of us, the experimental details IS the story.

    Remember this Wordie?

    http://blogs.nature.com/thescepticalchymist/2012/12/nature-chemistry-by-the-numbers-2012.html

    Synthesis, right there.

  • Mar 5th 201312:03
    by @professor_dave

    Great blog. I must confess though that I also dont want to see experimental detail back in the main paper. BUT, there is a problem with it being in the supporting info. In my last 30 submissions, I have only had one reviewer comment on any aspect of the supp info and I am beginning to believe that many reviewers do not really look at it in enough/any detail. Maybe all my supp info is perfect, but how likely is that??

  • Mar 5th 201313:03
    by Nicholas Tesla

    There’s a number of reasons to remain ‘nameless’ in this world and you hammered one of them on the head, Dr. Freddy. I’ve been following Synthetic Remarks for a little over a year now and I’ve noticed that you’ve gone to some lengths to not break your NDAs. I’m working to break into a terrible job market with what little experience I have – why would I risk my real name coming up with a blog? That’s like telling an employer that I will not only break the NDA, but do it publicly.

  • Mar 5th 201313:03
    by CoulombicExplosion

    Rich and Fredrik both bring up some worthwhile points to ponder w/r/t scientists assuming anonymous/pseudonymous presences in social media.

    When I created a Twitter account a few months ago, I put some consideration into the choice of a public pseudonymous account or a private one using my actual name. I decided to go the pseudonymous route for a few different reasons, some of which correspond to the benefits Rich points out. I wasn’t really certain what I was about to get into on Twitter, e.g., how I would be received, the extent to which privacy might be compromised, civility of discourse, etc.

    On a trial basis, I thought I’d go pseudonymous with the option of “coming out” upon evaluating the landscape. I also thought it was likely that a public pseudonymous account (relative to a private “real” account) would afford more exposure, possibly allowing for a more comprehensive evaluation of the Twittersphere. Lastly, given the number of pseudonymous science bloggers/tweeps, I thought surely there must be some reason (or several reasons) that I had not considered behind its popularity.

  • Mar 5th 201317:03
    by David Kroll

    As a biochemical pharmacologist (sans lab these days), I would kill to have the level of experimental detail in biology papers that you folks require in chemical syntheses.

    “Subcloned into the BfdI site of pFWDAOTI by standard techniques” – not helpful when you’re in month four of trying to do the same.

    As for pseudonyms, I wrote under one for almost five years and spoke publicly about it. In preparation for a session at ScienceOnline’09 (yes, last decade!), I wrote a few posts on the topic at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata. (I hate to have you click on these because I don’t get paid by them any longer.)

    http://scienceblogs.com/terrasig/category/the_pseudonymity_laboratory/

    I went real name when it was clear that the direction of my career — science communication instead of bench science — would be best aided by using my real name and all the press notoriety I had built up under my two identities. YMMV.

  • [...] Another (similar) great analysis and comment thread in this post by DrFreddy at C&EN‘s [...]

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