On 4th June 2020, Angewandte Chemie has published an article titled “Organic synthesis—Where now?” is thirty years old. A reflection on the current state of affairs written by Tomáš Hudlický. Very soon after the release, opposing opinions have flooded the internet, resulting in statements and actions by many important individuals and institutions. I believe that the reaction was very far from proportional.
The article currently cannot be found on the publisher’s website, but if you search elsewhere on the internet, you can easily find it.
- 1 About the article
- 2 Reading the article
- 3 Summary of the article
- 4 Reaction of the publisher
- 5 Reactions of others
- 6 Conclusion
1 About the article
Firstly, we should clarify what kind of article this is. It is not a scientific article, but rather an opinion piece (which is also what the publisher says). Nevertheless, it was stated that it has undergone peer review. I was actually quite surprised to learn that, since I thought that such articles would be up to the editors to curate.
Despite that, I think that it is a poorly written unbalanced text. It mostly consists of a rant about things that have changed in the field throughout author’s career. I believe he makes some valid points, which, however, are not particularly novel or enlightening. And he makes many claims, some of which have turned out to be very controversial.
In the light of this, I would expect that Angewandte simply rejects such article by a decision of the editor or the reviewers. Alternatively, they could have asked the author to revise and resubmit it. However, no system is perfect and the article has somehow made it through.
2 Reading the article
The main body of the article begins with this figure:
The figure is not new, and is a reprint from Hudlický’s book The Way of Synthesis. Not only do I not find the figure a helpful illustration of the text but it is also strongly misleading. For example, it is the lack of integrity of the literature or the decline in transference of skills that the author describes as the negative influences, yet the figure suggests otherwise. And most controversially, from the text I find that the author considers certain methods of achieving the diversity of workforce to be a negative influence, rather than the diversity itself. One must question the editorial process of the book where this figure was published originally. Nevertheless, I do not think that a misleading vague diagram should not be a reason for an outrage, unless the accompanying text is also outrageous.
Apart from the diversity section, which I shall discuss in a greater detail, there is one more paragraph that caught my attention. When the author speaks about mentoring students, he quotes Michael Polanyi:
’… there must be “an unconditional submission of the apprentice to his/her master.”’
in an agreeing way. Of course, an apprentice should have trust in their mentor and listen to them, but an “unconditional submission” is hardly a healthy relationship.
However, the most controversial part is the one labelled Diversity of work force. Let us read it sentence by sentence and analyse.
‘In the last two decades many groups and/or individuals have been designated with “preferential status”.’
This is an initial proposition that the author makes and he tries to argue in favour of it in the rest of the section. It seems like a feeling that he has, and as such, it would be difficult to both prove and disprove, especially given that preferential status is in quotation marks, which means it can mean almost anything.
‘This in spite of the fact that the percentage of women and minorities in academia and pharmaceutical indutry has greatly increased.’1
This trend is a fact that probably does not need further comments.
‘It follows that, in a social equilibrium, preferrential treatment of one group leads to disadvantages for another.’1
This statement I believe is true by definition if “preference” is what the author describes later on. It is tempting to immediately draw conclusions, but let us not put words in the author’s mouth. I find it interesting that the author mentions social equilibrium. I assume that a society is in social equilibrium when the proportions of various groups in different positions in the society are constant in time in the absence of any discrimination or bias. From what follows, it seems that the author thinks that preferential treatment in the current society leads to disadvantages for others. There are only two options of what the author thinks if he is consistent:
- Our society is in social equilibrium.
- Preferential treatment of one group may lead to disadvantages for others also in a society not in a social equilibrium.
I think that it is easy to find compelling evidence that our society is not in a social equilibrium (e.g. because of the changes in numbers of various groups at different positions, once discriminating hurdles are removed). Assuming that the author sees this as well, option 2. must be correct, and it is not entirely clear why he would make the statement in the first place. Maybe the author sought to make a statement that is definitely correct, and he ended up making a statement that is not relevant to the rest of the essay. Maybe he wanted to warn us that once our society approaches equilibrium, if preferential treatment remains in place, it would lead to disadvantages for some. In that case, however, I would expect the author to elaborate on it. Or he meant something completely different. It would be nice to have the author to reflect on this.
‘New ideologies have appeared and influenced hiring practices, promotion, funding, and recognition of certain groups.’
This again is a proposition that is later elaborated upon. And again, a hardly disprovable one, at least until it is described, how these areas should be influenced.
‘Each candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/categorization.’
I find this sentence in itself actually quite compelling and following human rights declarations of various kinds.
‘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.’
I find the if-clause very important in this sentence. The author says that if hiring practices are such that the most meritorious candidates are not selected, he finds those practices counterproductive. From the point of view of a business or an institution, such reasoning is natural; they definitely want the best person to do the job, assuming they compete with other institutions and businesses. It is true, however, that the author does not say “if and only if”, so he only gives us his opinion on a subset of diversity hiring practices.
What is merit?
The author unfortunately does not clarify what exactly merit means. I think that a reasonable definition would be the quality of the expected contribution as an employee. However, it is very difficult to predict this and can easily lead to a bias.
For example, when conducting interviews for universities, it is definitely tempting to choose the candidates who give the best impression. Yet, the real goal, I think, should be selecting the candidates with the greatest potential to develop over the course of their degree. The naïve approach would easily lead to a bias in favour of elite private schools whose pupils will have been well trained, thoroughly prepared for the interview and taught to perform confidently. In the interview, they would easily outperform more talented students from less good state school, who could not only catch up, but could also surpass them over the course of their degree.
Similarly, an employer considering two applicants, one of which took a parental leave, can be easily biased towards the other candidate, who will have had more years of experience, more published articles, etc. Again, a motivated talented person who took a parental leave can be a better investment than superficially better candidates.
A last example might be the consideration of the whole team. A group of talented people is not automatically a team. And a team looking for a new member might benefit much more from a mediocre candidate that is a good team player, than an exceptional candidate that disrupts the team.
There are infinitely many things that one might consider based on the situation. With this broad definition of merit, I personally do not see a problem with employers maximising the merit of their employees. After all, that is what they have to do to stay competitive.
‘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].’
I find that this sentence commits a logical fallacy. Such practice seems to refer to practices discriminating against the most meritorious candidates. However, the workshops may have (and probably have) originated simply in pursuit of equality of opportunity, not necessarily preferential hiring. Some of the workshops may have promoted preferential hiring, but the author makes a very general statement about them.
It is more difficult to avoid bias than one might think
The fallacy in the last sentence seems to me to originate in the lack of realisation of the difficulties in achieving a truly unbiased employment process. The sources of bias may include: The name of the position, the wording of the advert, where and how the advert is advertised, the way the application is processed, the way the interview is conducted or what the workplace looks like. Human mind is full of conscious and unconscious biases that can manifest themselves in every thought and every decision. Avoiding these takes huge effort and good methods. Having training to avoid biases is definitely beneficial, if not necessary to achieve unbiased hiring.
Let us also explore his Note 2.
‘2. An example of focusing on “underrepresented minorities” can be seen in the recently established “Power Hour” at Gordon Research Conferences. While this effort is commendable in order to increase the participation of women in science it diminishes the contributions by men (or any other group).’
I am familiar neither with Gordon Research Conferences (GRC) nor with their Power Hours. From a quick search it seems that these are sessions in which topics like unconscious bias, harassment, pay gap, child care, work-life balance, etc. with emphasis on underrepresented groups. It seems that GRC leaves a lot of freedom to the organisers of the specific conference on how the Power Hour should be run. Therefore, it is hard to assess the experience that the author may have had and that led him to this statement. However, it is difficult to argue with an impression that one has, and I do not believe that diminishing the contributions by non-women was the aim of the organisers of the Power Hours. My advice would be for the author to openly discuss his impressions with the Power Hour organisers. I am sure they would be happy to explain their reasons for doing things the way they do.
‘Universities have established various centers for “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion”, complete with mandatory seminars and training.’
This is just a statement of fact.
‘These issues have influenced hiring practices to the point where the candidate’s inclusion in one of the preferred social groups may override his or her qualifications.’
This is perhaps the strongest statement encountered so far. Until now, the author spoke in a more “statement logic” manner. (If hiring practices are such that X, then I consider them Y.) However, now the author bluntly claims that the hiring practices have been influenced sufficiently such that identification with an underrepresented group may override qualifications. Considering identification of candidates with certain groups in the employment process, I believe, is the definition of preferential hiring. Therefore this statement tells us that preferential hiring takes place.
Such a statement can be potentially damaging. Every day, there are discriminated people who have their skills and abilities questioned because of their identity. If people are hired based also on their identity, it may promote this unwanted behaviour. It may spark questions along the lines of “Did this person get the job because of their identity or because of their qualification?”.
Having read this statement, I searched for signs of preferential hiring at Canadian universities (since the author is based in Canada). Fairly quickly I found three examples, where the university openly declares that they use this practice. This means that the last statement of Note 2 is factually correct. Since it is correct, it should not be outrageous to put it in an essay. If someone finds it damaging, it is preferential hiring itself, which is damaging, not a statement that it takes place. I must emphasise that I do not wish to make any conclusions on whether preferential hiring is a good method of solving underrepresentation in academia or to assess how prevalent this method is. This is completely outside of the scope of this text.
3 Summary of the article
In my view, the article is a poorly written opinion piece with a very misleading figure, ranting about changes in the field, promoting unhealthy relationship between students and their mentors, and criticising preferential hiring, sometimes in an emotional way and presenting his personal feelings.
Knowing what the reactions to it are, I would like to point out what the article does not do. It does not question the importance of achieving fair representation of underrepresented groups in science. It does not question the benefits of diversity, unless one reads the misleading figure and jumps to conclusions without reading the rest of the article.
I can see, how quickly skimming this article and looking at the figure may lead to conclusions from the above paragraph. However, I do not think that we can draw these conclusions if we read the article carefully.
4 Reaction of the publisher
After the backslash, the publisher wanted to react. I can see many different ways this could be done:
Keep the current article as it is and encourage the community to counter it with other articles (perhaps published in Angewandte).
This would be the standard way that scientific discourse is led.
Request a preface for the article from the author, to clarify his intentions to make the article less controversial.
This might dissolve some of the tensions, while allowing the author to clarify his points.
Attach a preface to the article from the editors.
Scientific journals should aim to be impartial and as such should publish articles even if the editors disagree with them. This is of course for questions of opinion and not scientific rigour. However, a reminder to the reader that the editors do not endorse opinions in the article and merely honour the freedom of the author, might be sometimes justified.
Retract the article in the standard way
If an article is indeed found invalid, the standard way to retract it is to publish an announcement of retraction and to add a retraction note to the original article, while keeping it available for reference.
Retract the article and hide the full text version.
If an article is not just invalid, but also considered harmful to an extent where the publisher does not wish to spread its contents, albeit carefully annotated, I can imagine they might consider removing the full text of the article, and leaving up the title and the abstract with an appropriate notice informing about the retraction.
Make the article disappear.
I cannot imagine a reasonable situation, in which the correct thing to do is to make the article disappear. Only contrived examples come to my mind, like publishing secret information that is a matter of national security or being ordered to do so by the rule of a court. However, if such information was published, even for a little while, most of the damage will have been done.
If it was up to me to decide, I would choose option 2 and consider option 3 if the author did not want to cooperate. I would have some understanding if they decided to go for option 4. If they opted for option 5, I would find it unreasonable, but it is still a behaviour that I might generally expect from a trustworthy publisher. Option 6 I find unprofessional and eroding my trust in the publisher.
It is deeply unfortunate that Angewandte Chemie opted for option 6. At the beginning, the article disappeared completely, later they redirected the DOI link to an editorial that apologises for publishing the essay. Now the editorial has disappeared as well and there are no traces of the article on the Angewandte website. I find this reaction appalling (and it uncomfortably reminds me of Orwell’s 1984 vaporisations).
Luckily, the editorial was preserved on the website of Retraction Watch.
‘An opinion essay “A Reflection on the Current State of Affairs,” a response to “Organic synthesis—Where Now?,” originally published 30 years ago in Angewandte Chemie, recently appeared as an Accepted Article. The opinions expressed in this essay do not reflect our values of fairness, trustworthiness and social awareness. It is not only our responsibility to spread trusted knowledge, but to also stand against discrimination, injustices and inequity. While diversity of opinion and thoughts can spur change and debate, this essay had no place in our journal.
In response to this incident, we will conduct an internal investigation and will share the actions we are implementing within the next week to ensure this will not happen again. We are deeply sorry and know we have failed the community that puts their trust in us.
The foundation of our work is based on the belief that science can and does change the world.
We are committed to making a change. We can and will do better.’
Having carefully read the article I could come up with only three consistent explanations for such a statement.
- Preferential hiring is a value held in high regard by the editors.
- The person writing the statement has jumped to conclusions when reading the article.
- The person writing the statement is trying to appease those readers, who jumped to conclusions.
I do not believe that option 1. can be true. I find most likely it is option 3., perhaps in combination with option 2. I do not think that any one of the three options is appropriate for a serious journal.
5 Reactions of others
Brock University, where Hudlický is based has issued the following statement
‘… The paper includes highly objectionable statements that contrast the promotion of equity and diversity with the promotion of academic merit. These statements are hurtful and alienating to members of diverse communities and historically marginalized groups who have, too often, seen their qualifications and abilities called into question.
The article moreover contains descriptions of the graduate supervisor-graduate student relationship that connote disrespect and subservience. These statements could be alarming to students and others who have the reasonable expectation of respectful and supportive mentorship.
The statements contained in the paper are not representative of the Brock community. They are utterly at odds with the values of Brock’s deeply committed research mentors, and all those working hard to build an inclusive and diverse community. They do not reflect the principles of inclusivity, diversity and equity included in the University’s mission, vision and values as approved by our Senate and Board of Trustees. …‘
I agree with this statement regarding the supervisor-graduate relationship. However, I do not agree with the first paragraph. I believe that Hudlický has contrasted one method of promotion of diversity with the promotion of academic merit. I am sorry to hear that some people found the article hurtful and alienating. On the other hand, I am happy that it is only a result of a misunderstanding rather than a genuine disagreement. The server c&en asked Hudlický for a comment and received the following:
‘Hudlický feels that his essay had been taken out of context and he stands by what he wrote, adding that he has received emails of support as well as criticism since the article was published and then deleted. He points out the diversity of his own research group, and explains that he is not against diversity, instead he is arguing against preferential hiring of one group over another.’
This, indeed, confirms my suspicion that he intended to criticise preferential hiring and not diversity in itself, and the article was only poorly written.2
Fifteen members of the editorial board have resigned in a letter that can be seen below:
Of course, if these members of the International Advisory Board feel that they are better replaced by someone else, it is their full right to resign. However, they also claim that Hudlický’s article promotes racist and sexist views without listing any evidence. I believe their statement incorrect. Again, I think that the authors of the letter jumped to conclusions.
I could easily continue with hundreds of statements by institutions and individuals. Vast majority of these react to the hasty conclusions that I presented earlier. Many ask for actions against Angewandte and Hudlický.
I do not like the direction in which the discussion has turned. Not only people, but also institutions are following a narrative of a racist professor complaining about the loss of his white privilege without actually reading what he writes. It is true that he wrote it poorly (with an even poorer figure), but understanding of every text requires good will on both sides: The author honestly tries to convey their ideas. The reader honestly tries to read what the author wrote without reading in between the lines and putting words in author’s mouth. Only then can a cultivated discussion proceed. And I fully agree that the shortcomings of this article deserve a discussion.
I would like to thank Ondřej Zbytek and another person, who does not wish to be named, for their thorough review of this article and helpful comments.
I would like to emphasise that I found this statement by Hudlický only after interpreting his article in the way I did above. Since I believe that that is the natural way of interpreting it (in spite of the poor writing), I do not think that Hudlický is lying about his original intentions to calm the situation down. ↩