BY-NC-ND 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter January 22, 2021

The Hudlicky case—A reflection on the current state of affairs

Leiv K. Sydnes
From the journal Chemistry International

In June 2020, an earthquake hit the global chemical community. The epicenter was a paper published by Dr. Thomas Hudlicky, Professor of chemistry at Brock University, Canada, who discussed factors influencing the progress of organic synthesis in the last 25 years in a manner many found offensive. What followed was an avalanche of accusations, attacks, condemnations, criticism, protests, resignations, suspensions, and threats, but also statements of support and defense of the author. To witness the event evolving was strange because so many guidelines governing academic discourse were neglected. This merits a closer look at what happened so that an exchange of views can take place in a dignified manner in the future even when positions are far apart.

For those that have not followed the case, a summary of some the key events is pertinent. The havoc started on 4 June when the paper, an essay entitled “’Organic Synthesis – Where now?’ is thirty years old. A reflection on the currents state of affairs,” was posted as an accepted manuscript on the website of Angewandte Chemie [1]. It drew immediate attention, and within hours, condemnations of the article for its contents, of Dr. Hudlicky for writing it, and of the journal for publishing it appeared in abundance [2]. In addition, members of the International Advisory Board (IAB) of the journal started quickly to withdraw [3]. The following day statements from Brock University [4] and the Editor-in-Chief of Angewandte Chemie [5] appeared, and 6 June, the paper, which had been reviewed and accepted, was withdrawn and disappeared completely from the journal’s domain and its DOI [1]. At the same time, websites of individuals, institutions, and organizations as well as columns in newspapers and magazines started to focus on the case, and opinions criticizing or supporting the parties involved were published speedily [2, 6, 7, 8].

The author was most harshly criticized. Not only was the language characterized as offensive and inflammatory [9]; the essay contained statements that were called hurtful and alienating [4]. These statements were integrated in the discussion of eight factors that Hudlicky argued had contributed, positively or negatively, to the development of organic synthesis over the last three decades. The paragraph discussing the impact of the Diversity of work force (see Box [1]) was most forcefully attacked, but some, like then Editor-in-Chief Neville Compton, have denounced the whole publication because “[t]he opinions expressed in this essay do not reflect our values” [5]. The journal, on the other hand, has received a lot of criticism for its review process that made the publication of such an “abhorrent” and “egregious” paper possible [3]. Indeed a thorough disapproval of one of the most prestigious chemical journals around, but the judgement has obviously been accepted by Angewandte Chemie and its publisher Wiley-VCH, as evidenced in their open letter to the chemical community where it is stated that the fact “[t]hat this article was published at all has demonstrated a breakdown in editorial decision-making.” Therefore, profound measures are being implemented so that the journal can recover and earn back its trust among chemists [9].

Diversity of work force. In the last two decades many groups and/or individuals have been designated with “preferential status”. This in spite of the fact that the percentage of women and minorities in academia and pharmaceutical industry has greatly increased. It follows that, in a social equilibrium, preferential treatment of one group leads to disadvantages for another. New ideologies have appeared and influenced hiring practices, promotion, funding, and recognition of certain groups. Each candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/categorization. The rise and emphasis on hiring practices that suggest or even mandate equality in terms of absolute numbers of people in specific subgroups is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates. Such practice affects the format of interviews and has led to the emergence of mandatory “training workshops” on gender equity, inclusion, diversity, and discrimination [Note 2]. (quoted from Ref. 1)

As for me, Angewandte Chemie has not much trust to regain because the flaw under consideration is not pertaining to its scientific papers, but to a non-scientific essay expressing one author’s personal opinions. Chemists read every issue of Angewandte primarily for its excellent scientific contents, not for the essay. That does not mean that reading Angewandte essays has been a waste of time over the years; many of the contributions have been stimulating discussions of interesting topics, but some have also been annoying. An example of the latter is “Chemical Safety in a Vulnerable World - A Manifesto” from 2004, written by Carl Djerassi, who argued for formation of a Chemical Social Service Corps that would address environmental and chemical challenges of importance in countries lacking resources [10]. As President of IUPAC at that time, it was appalling to see that IUPAC was not mentioned with a single word when several of the multilateral measures Djerassi proposed had been core IUPAC activities for years.

A reply to Djerassi’s article was written and submitted to Angewandte, but rejected, seemingly because the journal had no responsibility for essay contents and could not be blamed [11]. This is common policy in many journals and magazines running essay-like columns, often practiced with a friendly suggestion to contact the author directly. I am therefore surprised that members of the Angewandte IAB held the journal responsible for the opinions in Hudlicky’s essay and likewise, that the Editor-in-Chief felt he had to emphasize that these opinions do not reflect Angewandte’s values. I can very well understand that there are people that are unhappy or upset with the wording of some of the statements in the essay, but considering the legal framework protecting the freedom of expression in general in many countries, the Hudlicky paper is not even close to be objectionable.

What is objectionable, however, is that the paper was withdrawn and completely removed from the Angewandte publication records. From many of the comments the essay generated, a take-home message is that Hudlicky’s essay proves that offensive and discriminatory attitudes are still found in the scientific community. In a statement signed by 28 chemical societies, the situation is spelled out more specifically: “Sexism, racism, discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and many other forms of inequality are sadly all too prevalent in the chemical sciences, both at individual and institutional levels.” [12] When 28 chemical societies agree on this, it is obvious there is a significant problem to address. Angewandte Chemie could have taken up this problem by letting the essay stand and opened a proper discussion based on a statement from the publisher and some central documents like the UN Declaration of Human Rights [13], the document Freedom, Responsibility and Universality of Science of the International Science Council (ISC) [14], and the UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers [15]. This would have been an act in the best academic traditions, a support of our duty to respect and protect the academic freedom, and a step to bring the issue in focus in a way that would have made both impact and headlines.

When Angewandte Chemie chose not to act that way, IUPAC could take on this important task for the global chemical community. There are several reasons for that. One is the fact that the Union has a long tradition in scrutinizing statements and definitions to develop clear terminology that enables fruitful discussions. In Hudlicky’s essay there many concepts to define clearly. For instance, when he talks about hiring the most meritorious candidate for a university position in organic synthesis (see the Box), what is meant by the best qualified candidate? Not necessarily the best researcher that would contribute the most to the progress of organic synthesis because a university is much more than a research laboratory in a non-educational institution like a chemical company. And when a new solid compound is made and supported by NMR data only and the yield is reported on the basis of the proton spectrum of an impure sample of the product, does not Hudlicky have a point when he argues for standardization of what constitutes proper characterization of new compounds in scientific journals?

Another reason for IUPAC involvement is its strong position as conference organizer. In general IUPAC conferences are highly regarded from a scientific point of view, but when their programs are studied, it becomes clear that the invited talks are given by scientists from a limited number of countries. This is an example of what the statement from the chemical societies calls other forms of inequality [12], which was discussed in a comment in Nature in Dec 2019 [16]. With the recent advent of hybrid conferences as a backdrop, IUPAC should take charge and aim at developing a conference template where diversity is a conference goal, made possible by a combination of new technology, a will to make a change, and strong conference advisory boards with members that don’t fill a number of the lecture slots themselves. In this way underrepresented groups of chemists will get scientific exposure at conferences, and this can indeed give young or unexperienced scientists a significant scientific boost, a richer creativity, an increased productivity, and subsequently, improved publication records.

A cancer in the scientific community is gift authorship, and as an award-granting union I am sure IUPAC committees must have been exposed to that practice as well. When PhD students have 25+ printed publications after 3 years of degree work, something is horribly wrong. How to curb this malpractice is not evident, but one step in the right direction could be to replace the publication-based PhD thesis with a monograph containing both positive and negative results and supplementary material. Maybe an IUPAC-recommended format could be developed?

From the discussion above, Dr. Hudlicky’s essay, and many comments to this essay, it is clear that the global chemical community has a complex problem to address. Since this very community is IUPAC’s main stakeholder, the union should take a close look at how it can contribute to change a system in need of renovation. Several approaches can indeed be envisaged, but since Angewandte Chemie, Wiley-VCH, and many chemical societies are already on the move, why not start with a symposium at the upcoming IUPAC Congress in Montreal, Canada, at the end of August 2021?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the view of IUPAC or its officers, nor do they imply an endorsement by the Union.

References

1. Dr. Hudlicky’s essay appeared with the DOI 10.1002anie.202006717; that code no longer gives access to the article. However, it can be found elsewhere, for instance https://sites.krieger.jhu.edu/chemdna/files/2020/06/10.1002anie.202006717.pdf (2020.11.01)Search in Google Scholar

2. A Google search for Hudlicky gives numerous links to site substantiating this statement. Some relevant links are the following (2020.11.01):http://drennan.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Angewandte-200616.pdfhttps://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2020/mh/d0mh90049dhttp://www.safs.ca/issuescases/case.php?case=brock-chemistryhttp://emilkierkegaard.dk/en/?p=8759http://adamprada.net/blog/hudlickyhttp://www.safs.ca/issuescases/brock-chemistry/Canadian%20Society%20for%20Chemistry.pdfhttps://www.chemistryworld.com/4011923.articlehttps://cen.acs.org/research-integrity/ethics/Essay-criticizing-efforts-increase-diversity-in-organic-synthesis-deleted-after-backlash-from-chemists/98/web/2020/06https://retractionwatch.com/2020/06/08/controversial-essay-at-german-chemistry-journal-leads-to-suspensionsSearch in Google Scholar

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4. An open letter to the Brock community, Gregory C. Finn, 7 June 2020; http://www.safs.ca/issuescases/brock-chemistry/3%29%20Provost-G-Finn-Letter-to-the-Community-June-7-2020.pdf (2020.11.01)Search in Google Scholar

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11. When the submitted paper was rejected, a request for permission to republish ref. 10 in IUPAC’s Chemistry International was sent and granted. Djerassi’s essay was printed in Chem. Int. 2004, Sept-Oct, pp. 12-14. In the following issue, I published a comment entitled Chemists in a Vulnerable World (Chem. Int. 2004, Nov-Dec, pp.2-3).Search in Google Scholar

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16. Heather L. Ford, Cameron Brick, Margarita Azmitia, Karine Blaufuss, and Petra Dekens, Nature 2019, 576, No. 7785 (5 December); https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03688-wSearch in Google Scholar

Online erschienen: 2021-01-22
Erschienen im Druck: 2021-01-01

© 2021 Leiv K. Sydnes, published by IUPAC & De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.