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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 6, 2013

Anonymity, Fakery, et al.

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Posted by Derek

I wanted to link to this piece at C&E News on the whole question of anonymity when it comes to comments on the chemical literature. This was brought on by the advent of Blog Syn, but it applied before that, and will continue to apply to other situations.

Its author, Fredrik von Kieseritzky, also calls for synthetic details to make it back into the body of papers, rathe than being relegated to the Supporting Information (which is never as carefully refereed as the manuscript itself). That would be a good thing, but I despair of it happening, at least until the major journals break down and admit that their page count restrictions for submissions are, in large part, relics of the days when everyone read them in print. (They serve another useful function, thought, which is getting people to tighten up their writing. "There wasn't enough time to make it shorter" is a real phenomenon).

But the rest of the commentary grew out of this piece by Rich Apodaca, whose morning it is around here. He wonders about the use of pseudonyms in science, where author recognition has long been a big motivating factor. von Kieseritzky's take is that he can see why people go anonymous (and Rich lists some very plausible reasons, too), but that he's never regretted using his own name online.

That goes for me, too. The topic of anonymity has come up here several times over the years: in chem-blogging, and in peer review of publications and grants. I'm glad that I've used my real name over the years on this blog (although it hasn't always been a smooth ride), but I also think that anonymity is a necessary option, although it certainly can be abused.

That opinion is not shared by the (pseudonymous) author of this piece in the Journal of Cell Science. It's a bit of dystopian what-if, an agitated response to the (now taken down) Science Fraud site. "Mole VIII" relates how some people (an extremely small percentage) did indeed fake scientific papers, and how this embittered other people who had been unable to make the careers in science that they wished to. So they started web sites where they cried "Fake!" about papers of all kinds, which forced the authors to spend all their time defending themselves. Many of them were driven out of doing science, whereupon they turned to exposing their former colleagues as the next best thing. And then, in one generation, science was done - stopped forever, in a hurricane of finger-pointing and snide remarks.

What a load. For one thing, I think that fakery, while not rampant, is more widespread than many people think. And even if it isn't, I think that legitimate results stand up to challenges of this sort, while the shady ones collapse at a push. Furthermore, I find the whole cycle-of-bitterness conceit ridiculous. A look back at the history of science will show that accusations of fakery and bad faith have been with us forever, and often in much more vitriolic form than today.

One problem might be that the author is a bit too academic. Try this part:

Soon, there were very few scientists left. And then fewer. Public confidence for publicly funded research disappeared. The only research that was done any more was kept secret and in the corporations. And while this gave us many new package designs for the sale of established drugs, the actual idea of ‘doing science’, of making discoveries to share with a community of interested and devoted researchers, dwindled, and finally, vanished.

Yep, that's about the size of it - package designs. I try to stay alert to threats to the scientific endeavor, and I try not to take it for granted. But I'm willing to put my real name on the opinion that the author of this stuff is being foolish.

Comments (14) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. mass_speccer on March 6, 2013 9:03 AM writes...

I think some journals have online methods that are properly typeset and included in the online version of the article (PDF) but not published on paper - that seems like a reasonable compromise to me.

Including everything in the PDF and typesetting it for publication makes it 'feel' much more like part of the paper than a completely separate supplementary information file.

(Nature Methods is the journal I'm thinking of, but I think there are others too)

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2. The Iron Chemist on March 6, 2013 9:06 AM writes...

If scientists do eventually disappear, it will be because of evaporating job opportunities and/or dwindling support from government and the private sector. Snarky comments on chemistry blogs on the other hand...

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3. bad wolf on March 6, 2013 9:16 AM writes...

If blogs were criticizing papers that were absolutely faultless, have no suspicious figures or egregious copy/pastes from previous publications, then he might have a point. As it is I have yet to hear of a legitimate study or researcher that has been hurt by public discussion. No blog that I'm aware of has had to print a retraction; although that's always a possibility for the future, it's not one that's somehow worse than the publication system we have now.

As for pseudonyms, well, mine's getting a little long in the tooth, but old habits die hard.

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4. will on March 6, 2013 9:27 AM writes...

pseudonyms in science are all bad, just ask a student

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5. will on March 6, 2013 9:29 AM writes...


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6. p on March 6, 2013 9:53 AM writes...

If grant and manuscript reviewers are anonymous I'm not clear why it would be bad to have bloggers be.

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7. Robert on March 6, 2013 9:57 AM writes...

Since grants and papers are both peer-reviewed, and people tend to take offense to the idea that their work is not faultless (with strong offense often taken when there is lots of fault to be taken), pseudonymity/anonymity seems like it ought to be with us. It also seems to be necessary when an advisor holds your career in (his/her) hands, as is the case for science (and maybe most graduate degrees). There isn't much external review to keep people honest, and even when there is, it generally can't help enough (for example, as cited a long time ago by Dr. Free-Ride, when students at Wisconsin caught (their advisor?) cheating and were shunned for it, even with the support of their administration). As long as not too many people blog, the current dominants can afford to neutralize people who complain loudly about their work (considering the work that goes into some blogs, the expectation that not everyone will blog seems reasonable) - only when lots of people do it openly can they no longer afford to silence them professionally.

Being pseudonymous is a good compromise, because generally one tries to protect one's reputation. However, being pseudonymous is not long-term protection - eventually, unless you're really careful, people find out who you are. I have found that I am sometimes too harsh and quick to respond when pseudonymous, which I regret.

It's probably better to respond under your own name, but there are lots of times when it is necessary to be anonymous. How far would Watergate have gotten if Deep Throat had been public?

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8. Fredrik von Kieseritzky on March 6, 2013 10:26 AM writes...

Um... Hope I won't have to retract my stand on not being anonymous. After this :)

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9. Purehydro on March 6, 2013 10:28 AM writes...

In Asia fakery is pretty much the norm. Professors are under pressure to publish for job security, status and money. There's a small contingent of diligent 3rd world students with Master's degrees hoping to do a PhD that crank out the papers for them.

In this age of petty revenge and internet searches, one bad post can haunt you for the rest of your life.

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10. pseudonymous on March 6, 2013 11:45 AM writes...

Me thinks someone follows the logic of Ayn Rand a bit too closely.

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11. Helical_Investor on March 6, 2013 12:40 PM writes...

In replying to this post, with a 'username', have I already taken a side?

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12. Anonymous on March 6, 2013 3:58 PM writes...

most of my favorite chemistry blogs have been published under pseudonyms. just scrolling through the last entries on one example, thechemblog, included "unpublishable" things like his unfiltered, f-bomb laden rants on all things chemistry. there is also photo-documentation of his poor TLC technique (a certain commenter here would not approve). These were still welcome contributions and made for good discussion.

i think the controversy here is that CRO and company actually have a bit of a reputation built up behind their pseudonyms at this point, so it's not so easy to shrug off their "unreproducible" verdict, whereas an anonymous "this reaction is bunk" comment on whatever forum would have been ignored

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13. Anon on March 6, 2013 8:28 PM writes...

"science was done - stopped forever, in a hurricane of finger-pointing and snide remarks"

Funny. that's about the memory that I have of most of our department seminars...

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14. Paul Brookes on March 7, 2013 10:34 AM writes...

Thanks Derek, it's good to see someone with a rational viewpoint about the Mole article. I think Mole (whoever he/she is), is right on some things and wrong on others.

As the person behind, I can certainly speak to the importance of anonymity, since having my cover blown has resulted in a number of unpleasant consequences. Furthermore, I'm sympathetic to the over-arching issue of public trust in science - if too many of us start fighting with each other, taxpayers may pull the plug.

However, I will confidently state that "Mole" is flat out wrong on the idea that the people behind these sites (such as myself) are failures/bitter/jealous/wanting revenge. On the contrary, I run a very successful lab, just got an RO1 renewed, have been NIH funded continually since 2003, have published almost 100 papers, and have no intention of letting this minor blip get in the way of what I enjoy as a career. If "Mole" had bothered to ask me before writing this piece, he/she would have found that the vast majority of people who reported stuff to science-fraud were also successful scientists.

It is possible to be both a good scientist and a skeptic; in-fact I would argue the latter is required for the former.

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