Monthly Archives: July 2013

Chemists and ethics

A few weeks ago, I read a very interesting paper surveying graduate students about the ethical behavior of people around them.1 The paper is a little old, but it’s still worth a read, if only to remind ourselves that students do see things, and that what they see affects them in various ways.

Basically, the survey asked students if they had seen various kinds of misconduct. As a chemist, the following passage really struck a nerve:

Chemistry students are most likely to be exposed to research misconduct, chemistry and microbiology students are most likely to observe employment misconduct… [p. 337]

Now that bothered me. Why should there be more misconduct in chemistry than in other fields of research included in this survey? Now I know enough to understand the limitations of surveys with smallish samples, particularly surveys that rely on voluntary participation, but still, it bothered me. The paper does go on to discuss departmental characteristics that explain much of the variance between disciplines, so that these results may reflect a small-sample fluctuation at the department level. Still, it bothered me.

Reading this paper started me thinking about other things. A few years ago, I had the privilege to teach a course entitled Contemporary Chemistry. This is a regular course offering in our Department, which all undergraduate chemistry majors have to take as part of their degrees. We do a number of different things there: The departmental seminar program runs in the time slot of this course; we work on the students’ writing and oral presentation skills; and when I taught it, I introduced an ethics module. It was interesting getting students to grapple with various ethical dilemmas, including their responsibilities as members of a profession, which was a new idea for them.

While preparing for this course, I bought a book entitled The Ethical Chemist by Jeffrey Kovac.2 There are a lot of things I really liked about this book, particularly its emphasis on ethics as a practical matter: Like it or not, you’re going to run into ethical conundra, so you need the knowledge and skills to deal with them, just as you need to know how to recrystallize compounds or interpret NMR spectra. The book includes a rich variety of case studies, some of which are less straightforward than others. If you’re going to teach an ethics module to chemists, I highly recommend this book.

I did find myself in disagreement with this book in its discussion of the reporting of yields, presented as a set of case studies. Here is an excerpt from one of these case studies:

You […] have just finished the synthesis and characterization of a new compound and are working on a communication to a major journal reporting the work. While you have made and isolated the new compound, you have not yet optimized the synthetic steps, so the final yield is only 10%. From past experience, you know that you probably will be able to improve the yield to at least 50% by refining the procedure. Therefore, when writing the communication, you report the projected yield of 50% rather than the actual figure. [p. 29]

Then, when discussing this case study, Kovac makes the point that scientific papers tell a linear story, without all the twists, turns and dead-ends of laboratory research. So far, so good. However, he then writes

[…] an experienced researcher is convinced based on past history that the yield can and will be improved. Why not report the higher figure? By the time anyone reads the article it will be true. [p. 30]

I have a bunch of problems with this suggestion:

  • It may be a high probability statement that the yield can be improved to 50%, but it’s not a certainty. What if you can only get the yield up to 30%? It wouldn’t be research if we knew ahead of time what the outcome was going to be, and you really don’t know that you can get a 50% yield until you actually get a 50% yield.
  • Let’s say you are eventually successful in reaching a 50% yield. You won’t get there with the reaction conditions you put into the manuscript. Those conditions will get you 10%. Every chemist I know has, at some point or other, complained that their colleagues withhold important details when writing up their syntheses. Here, you’re not withholding information you have in hand, but the effect is the same: You can’t get a 50% yield with the conditions disclosed in your paper. You might be giving your lab an edge by optimizing the synthesis after the paper has been sent out, but if you can’t correct the synthetic conditions before the paper is published, you are going to be wasting the time of every other lab that wants to follow up on your work.
  • If you can just put a larger number in the paper without doing the work, why would you optimize the synthesis at all? To me, making up numbers because you “know” you can get there is an extraordinarily slippery slope.

It’s an excellent book, and I really don’t want to beat up on Kovac. However, I wonder how other chemists feel about this? At what point have you crossed a line from presenting your data in its best possible light to fabricating? Even if we intend to correct the reactions conditions in the galleys prior to final publication, what are we teaching our students if we tell them that we’ll embellish the results now to maximize the probability of acceptance, or to make sure we win the race with another lab, or to pad our CVs before some grant or scholarship competition?

At some point, we have to say that we’re going to hold ourselves to the highest possible standards so that our students don’t grow up in an environment where they routinely observe misconduct.1 I think we owe it to them, and we owe it to the society that pays us to do research and to teach.

1Anderson, M. S.; Louis, K. S. & Earle, J. Disciplinary and Departmental Effects on Observations of Faculty and Student Misconduct. J. Higher Ed., 1994, 65, 331-350

2Kovac, J. The Ethical Chemist. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004