Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Sins In Science - Poor Disclosure

Back again. My wife died on the 16th of January, so my blogging will be a bit erratic for a while, but at the end of last year I had planned some, and one theme included the behavior of the scientific community in the dissemination and discovery of knowledge, so here is the first blog that was written before this unfortunate event.
 
In a recent essay in Angew. Chem. Int Ed. 52: 118 – 122, van Gunsteren outlined what he considered the seven sins in academic behavior, which he ordered in increasing gravity of the offence. I found this to be quite interesting, and worth exploring further, The least "severe" sin, according to the author was "Poor or incomplete description of the work". As the author says, reproducibility is a critical element of good science.
 
Why is this not such a sin? The author then argues that with the growth of complexity of equipment and the growth of the sophistication of mathematical analysis aided by computers, the publication and analysis of all data required for others to reproduce the work has become more cumbersome. There is no doubt about that, and there is also little doubt that journal space does not lead itself to providing everything, but this in turn raises an interesting question: is the finding of the experiment that complicated that some simplified version cannot be provided? That leads me to a particular dislike I have for computational chemistry papers, in which the general reader such as me, who has an interest but is not involved, has no idea what key features led to the conclusion because they are not listed. Of course the program details are too complicated, but if there is nothing of general interest, why is it published?
 
When I was doing my PhD, I tried a synthesis outlined in a report in Tetrahedron Letters, and I could not get it to go. Now first, the substrate was not the same, so maybe the reaction did not go on what I was trying to do, at least that was the conclusion I reached, so I abandoned that route, and instead tried a route that was very much longer, but for which I at least could find enough details to know whether I was doing it properly. Also, while it was time-consuming, at least it had the merit of working, although it did not give me quite the range of substitution patterns I would have preferred. (I also tried an alternative synthesis, and it worked to some extent, but only on the most electron-rich substrates. That gave me more reason to believe the first option would not work.) However, four years after I had finished my PhD I came across a full paper where the real details of that failed option were finally published, and one condition that I doubt a young student would be likely to recognize as important had been left out of the letter, yet this condition was absolutely critical, and it would never have been put in accidentally because it needed a special procedure that was quite outside the usual conditions of organic syntheses. I do not consider that a minor sin. I consider that as likely to be due to an egotist who wanted to get as many papers in this field before others worked the obvious possibilities. In my opinion, a synthesis procedure is useless unless sufficient detail is given so that a tolerably competent chemist can carry it out and make the required product. So, for me, if this is a minor sin, some of the others must be pretty bad.
 
Van Gunsteren then proceeds to criticize the practice of dumping procedures in supplementary information. His criticism of this is largely based on this being less well reviewed than the main body of the paper. Personally, I do not find this to be terribly important. The fact is, in most papers there is a strict limit to what peer reviewers can be required to find. They may, and I have occasionally found absolutely critical errors of procedure, but basically the whole point of peer review (at least in my opinion) is to ensure the paper is coherent and understandable, and makes a point worth making. The peer reviewer usually will have no more chance of finding a basic flaw in a procedure than anyone else who does not try the procedure, and the peer reviewer cannot be expected to reproduce the work. It is the responsibility of the author alone to ensure that the details are correct, AND all details are there. After all, the author alone actually knows what was done, unless, of course, it was a student who did it
Posted by Ian Miller on Jan 19, 2015 7:04 PM Europe/London

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