On Criticism of ACS and C&EN

Why don't scientists complain to the source when invited to do so? Today, we discuss a call from C&EN News Editor-in-Chief, Rudy Baum, actively soliciting criticism of the ACS magazine - a post that in two weeks has netted a whopping five comments.  It's not blogophobia - chemists seem willing to comment at In the Pipeline (18 Apr, 11 Aug, 20 Aug) and Chemjobber (8 Sept). Baum routinely and freely publishes letters to the editor in C&EN that are highly critical of the mag and larger organization. But why won't chemists and other critics provide feedback directly on his blog? I put up a version of this post up a few days ago at my other blog, Take As Directed, on the new Public Library of Science (PLoS) network, PLoS Blogs. There, the post netted a total of one comment. That one was not from a chemist but rather from my respected library information scientist colleague, Christina Pikas, formerly with me at ScienceBlogs and now at the vibrant Scientopia blogger collective. Before I was offered that slot at PLoS to write among a group of truly lofty science journalists, editors, book authors, and bloggers, I had made arrangement for my long-time blog, Terra Sigillata, to move here to CENtral Science. I've held forth extensively how deeply satisfying it is for me to be here with another group of lofty journalists and editors, many of whom hold PhDs in chemistry and chemistry-related sciences and/or degrees from some of the top science journalism programs in the US. I've been really fortunate in having this science writing hobby bring me into relationships with some remarkable people I'd probably never have interacted with in my myopic research area. But back to science. When I was an undergrad in the early 80s, most of us paid the then-$10/year student ACS membership fee to get what we then called "C-and-E News" because it made us feel like real scientists, tapped into the big world of all the great opportunities chemistry-related education would bring us. This influence was central to my lifelong collaborations and friendships with chemists despite my turning to the dark side of biology. When blogger friends learned I'd be writing at both CENtral Science and PLoS, many looked at me askance - or as much as one could online. So, uh, er, you're associating yourself with the evangelical open-access movement while also working with one of the most longstanding and traditional science publishers??? Uh, yeah.  Call me Marv Thorneberry, the New York Mets not-so-great who became one of Miller Lite beer's earliest spokespersons. During a television commercial where bar patrons were fighting over the "tastes great" and "less filling" sentiments, Marv said, "I feel strongly both ways." This will be a topic for another day but I am absolutely supportive of open-access journals and have begun publishing in some, but society journals, whether I like their access policies or not, still carry great weight with grant reviewers and academic promotion and tenure committees. And for all the open-access pontificating that all information should be free, I think that we all had to take a moment to reflect a couple of weeks ago when Mr. Open Access himself, Bora Zivkovic, left PLoS to join Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine of any kind in the US (and now owned by Nature Publishing Group), as Blog and Community Editor. This all brings me to a case I've been following at C&EN since even before I joined CENtral Science: criticism of C&EN and the larger American Chemical Society by chemists who feel their needs are not being served. Chemist Derek Lowe, one of THE top science bloggers and one of the earliest, also joined the C&EN Advisory Board this past April. In preparing for his meeting, he put up a post asking his 10-15K daily readers, "What do you think that C&E News does well, and what do you think it does poorly?" That post netted 116 comments, with most complaining that C&EN presents too rosy of a picture of a discipline that is bleeding jobs in the US or too beholden to industry, too US-centric, too esoteric, too much information, too little information, etc. Of course, a lot of the tone is your typical blog snark - pithy whining but lacking in real substance or suggestion. Derek posted on behalf of Susan Ainsworth, a senior C&EN editor in Dallas, calling for stories of chemists who have retooled for other careers and the first commenter here stated, "It took your Blog post to get them to take notice?" I know the snark was meant to be critical of C&EN but Derek's blog very closely has the pulse of the working chemist, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Why would an editor not seize on a topic that a prominent blogger brought forward and demonstrated would have a larger audience? (Commenter Curt F. tended to agree as well.). In fact, why do you think C&EN thought to invite Derek to their advisory board? I consider this all very forward-thinking. In fact, some of Derek's commenters viewed his invitation as a chance for a real chemist to infiltrate C&EN (although Jean-Claude Bradley is on the board) while another thought he would lose credibility for associating with ACS and C&EN. But why don't writers complain directly to C&EN? And I'm not just talking about practicing chemists. I know that library information scientists have very strong views on the publication access policies of ACS.  Let's hear them. X-process chemist wrote at Derek's in April:
Permit anonymous letters to the editor for those many of us who fear their jobs, but need a voice.
Well, you have a chance - go directly to the Editor's blog. I'm sure that Rudy would even appreciate anonymous comments.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. Why can’t Baum respond directly on any of the popular blogs (he didn’t in Derek Lowe’s post, I apologize if he does have a presence on some other sites)? Complaining that chemists don’t want to engage with you on your forum of choice isn’t exactly the best way to persuade them to engage with you. Also, while I don’t really suspect C&EN of deleting comments they don’t like, you have to admit there is a lot of incentive to delete critical comments. Responding on someone else’s blog would be more transparent.

    The other issue is signal to noise. Lowe’s posts are consistently interesting for a broad audience and well-written and averages a post per day. The C&EN RSS feed averages about two posts per day, with a wide range of writers and topics that aren’t always particularly interesting to me.

  2. Maybe you are one of the ambassadors that will revitalize things. Your recent blog move brought me back here. I haven’t paid my ACS dues or subscribed to C&E News in quite some time. At that time I dropped out I was working in the semiconductor industry and felt that C &EN had too narrow a viewpoint as to what the field of chemistry was all about. I can’t really comment on modern time ACS goings on until I check things out online. I never had any reason to look before. But now that I’m here, I will.

  3. I’m sure there are many reasons why people have not replied. Personally, I don’t think the ACS leadership is committed to making substantive changes. They have too much invested in the status quo.

  4. I think one thing ACS does well is produce quality journals in many fields.

    I think there are many things ACS does poorly.

    First and foremost, ACS grossly misrepresents the employment situation for chemists. One need only read Herman Skolnik’s editorial from 1972 (J. Chem. Doc., 1972, 12 (2), p 74, DOI: 10.1021/c160045a001) to see why the ACS employment survey is fundamentally flawed. Knowing this, why does the ACS continue to champion the production of more chemists? Is this simply a result of ignorance, or is the motive more sinister?

    Secondly, the ACS does a poor job providing opportunities for career development and certification. While conferences and journals provide opportunities for academics to advance their careers through presentations and publications, the industrial chemist is left to fend for himself or herself. ACS short courses are far too expensive for individuals given their limited practical value in career development. What verifiable skill set does a graduate of such a course bring to an employer? The ACS should follow the lead of other professional organizations such as ASQ, RAPS, & NRCC to develop meaningful certifications for in-demand competencies.

    Thirdly, C&E News is in desperate need of more high-quality journalism. Serious reporting does not blindly accept corporate PR at face value. Let’s see more articles like Ann Thayer’s Genotoxic Impurities that actually provided me with useful information and less like Marc Reisch’s Catalyst for Sustainability that is nothing more than a bandwagon endorsement piece.

  5. I am also a librarian, and I’ll venture one guess about the dearth of comments: scientists are too busy to bother with blogs. Or with C&EN for that matter. When the weekly issues arrive in our departmental mailroom, one can find a good number of them right there in the recycle bin. Which is not to say C&EN has no value; I think academic chemists just don’t have time for it, and probably feel it’s too industry-oriented in general.

    I try to peruse it weekly though. In general I find something of interest in every issue, tho I can skip the Business section. Its reporting is more balanced than some would say, and it’s certainly a world away from the rabid pro-business slant of most trade mags. (Though I play a game. In articles by Glenn Hess, I count the number of paragraphs before he quotes an ACC flack. It’s usually about 4. I find much of his reporting biased and lazy.)

    I applaud Rudy Baum’s bravery in his positions, especially those that make some right wing readers foam at the mouth in their invective-filled rants that the magazine gleefully prints a few weeks later. Give them a platform and watch them make fools of themselves! Great sport. The only position I disagree totally with him on is on Open Access, which Baum views – as does the ACS brass – as a form of dangerous socialism, which is utter nonsense and a disservice to science. But otherwise I think C&EN benefits from its non-intuitive positions on climate change and other issues.

  6. The question is not whether Mr Baum solicits criticism, but rather whether he is prepared to support a real dialogue on the purpose of the ACS. The proof is in the pudding.

    It is also telling that Mr Baum does not readily respond to criticism.