On the scientific endeavor

I’ve been making an effort to include writings from prominent chemists to my personal reading list. My favourite source is the Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams series put out by the ACS (but now out of print.) These are autobiographical accounts of careers in chemistry, and often feature great snippets of stories about other famous chemists or bits of philosophy.

Here is a quote from the late Prof. R. Lemieux which is worth a read [for context, this quote follows a story about Johnson adding Lemieux to a publication after discovering that the two were investigating the same problem through discussion at a meeting]:

“This statement about Bill Johnson is not characteristic of many scientists, even perhaps of the majority. Especially since Sputnik, many job seekers have rendered the practice of science more of a trade than a profession. Unfortunately, many opportunists have risen above their level of competence and used every known “business” trick to stay involved. The most common ploy is a form of plagiarism based on misconstruing the contributions of others by making a vague reference to their work in a first paper, which thereafter is the only one quoted. It is remarkable that the need to survive can so condition the mentality of some scientists that they refuse to acknowledge that results presented at scientific conferences and in person or in private communication are, in fact, published (made public) results. A more serious threat to the orderly development of science is the evolution, through inbreeding, of editorial boards of prestigious journals, who do not realize that they are about the only ones who hold their publications in such high esteem. I mention these matters because I consider it best that young people contemplating a scientific career realize from the start that science is very much part of the real world and has in its ranks a full quota of stuffed shirts, flim-flam artists, opportunists, exploiters, and even full-fledged buccaneers. At the same time, young would-be scientists must realize that, to participate fully in this noble profession, they should feel free at all times to talk openly about their work. To my mind, the best part of a scientific career is to talk about what you have discovered when it is “hot,” which normally means prior to formal publication. I consider this a most precious freedom that must be defended at all times and with great vehemence if necessary.”

From – “Explorations with Sugars,” by R. U. Lemieux in Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams: Autobiographies of Eminent Chemists, American Chemical Society, Washington, DC, 1990, pg 41.

Although this series is out of print, many copies are floating around in used book shops. I use ABEbooks to dig these up, sometimes at pretty reasonable prices.