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Chemistry credit disputes under the spotlight

A survey of six hundred chemists has found that half of them feel they have not been given sufficient credit for a contribution made to another’s published research. Many of those who felt wronged said they were afraid of speaking up if it meant confronting the senior author.

The finding is part of a lengthy investigation into the responsible conduct of science, by anthropologist Mark House, of Giant Steps Research in Gainesville, Florida, and chemistry historian and sociologist Jeffrey Seeman, at the University of Richmond, Virginia.

Seeman presented some of the results of the study, some of which were published this year, at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston, Massachusetts, on 23 August. In the same talk, he revealed new letters which dug deeply into a credit dispute between two of the most famous organic chemists of the 20th century, the Nobel laureates EJ Corey and RB Woodward.

Though learned societies do set guidelines for ethical behavior and responsible conduct in research, Seeman feels that not enough attention has been paid to scientists’ attitudes and education in issues such as data-sharing, keeping appropriate records in laboratory notebooks, giving credit to others for contributions to research, and resolving conflicts that arise as a result of disagreements about these issues.

He and House – who decided to collaborate after meeting on an aeroplane – sent out a survey in late winter 2008 to 4,000 US chemists. “The most important thing is to get data on what the norms in the community are,” says Seeman. “What have chemists experienced and what do chemists do with regard to giving and receiving credit?” The first results of the survey, to which 600 chemists replied, were published in papers in the journal Accountability in Research this year (Acc. in Res. 17, 146-169; 2010 doi: 10.1080/08989621003791986 , Acc. in Res. 17, 176-197; 2010 doi: 10.1080/08989621.2010.493094 ).

Give and take

Almost half the respondents said they had not received appropriate credit, and many of them did not speak up to the senior author of a paper. The majority of those who kept their discontent to themselves reported fear of being placed in a compromised situation as being the major factor.

Seeman and House also asked chemists how they would credit somebody else who made a critical suggestion that enabled them to complete a research project. Most of the time, the scientists – particularly the youngest survey respondents – elected for an acknowledgement in a paper. “In today’s competitive environment of science, providing an acknowledgment simultaneously acknowledges another’s contributions without sharing much, if any, of the credit,” the survey authors write.

126 people said they would give co-authorship on a paper if their own graduate or postdoctoral student had made a crucial suggestion – but only 55 of those said they would give a colleague’s students co-authorship for the same scenario. Researchers inclined to be most generous with credit were the eldest, who earned their PhDs in the 1940s-60s, and who had the most publications. The youngest, most recent doctorates with the fewest publications were the most reluctant to give credit.

Seeman thinks the data may be the only quantitative survey to date of how credit is given and received in the intense research environment of university or academic chemistry.

At his presentation, Seeman also discussed one of chemistry’s most famous credit disputes. The eminent organic chemist E J Corey claimed in 2004 that as a 35-year old professor at Harvard University in 1964 he gave the idea to senior colleague Robert B Woodward for the Woodward-Hoffmann rules, a theory that explains the course of a set of chemical reactions, and earned Roald Hoffmann a Nobel Prize in 1981 (which Woodward would also have won, his second, had he not died two years earlier).

Corey says his help was never acknowledged, and wrote to Hoffmann in 1981 that Woodward and Hoffmann had ‘stonewalled’ his contribution. Hoffmann’s account of the matter was published in Angewandte Chemie in 2004.

Presenting his own investigations into the affair, Seeman suggested that the disagreement was probably not clearly resolvable. “The most important question is not what Corey said to Woodward, or what Woodward perceived he heard from Corey. We should care about this conflict because it makes us ask how we as scientists relate to each other, and try to resolve any conflicts we may have,” he said.


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      Steven Levine said:

      I would like to find out more about the dispute between Robert Woodward and Corey. R B Woodward was my mother’s first cousin, and they played together at an early age. I have many photos and articles about him, but this is the first I have heard about the dispute.

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