A June 5 essay on the state of organic synthesis sparked immediate outcry from chemists due to the author’s criticism of efforts to increase representation of women and underrepresented groups in the field. The journal that published the essay, Angewandte Chemie, International Edition, has since removed the article from its web site and suspended two of its editors, while it investigates the editorial process that led to the essay’s publication. Several members of the journal’s international advisory board have also resigned in protest over the essay.
The piece, written by Tomáš Hudlický of Brock University in recognition of the 83rd birthday of organic chemist Dieter Seebach, reflects on factors that influence how the field of organic synthesis continues to develop. One of the factors that Hudlický discusses is workforce diversity. He argues that efforts to promote diversity have prioritized inclusion of certain groups of people at the expense of meritocracy.
After immediate and intense criticism of the piece by chemists on social media, the journal quickly deleted the essay from its website. The digital object identifier (DOI), a universal code used to identify published articles, first sent readers to a “page not found” error message, and now redirects to a statement by the journal’s editor in chief, Neville Compton.
In that statement, Compton writes that “while diversity of opinion and thoughts can spur change and debate, this essay had no place in our journal.” Compton added that the journal will “share the actions we are implementing within the next week to ensure this will not happen again.” Angewandte Chemie is the official journal of the German Chemical Society (GDCh). In a follow-up statement released on June 8, the German Chemical Society apologized for the publication of the essay. The statement added that two editors involved in the essay’s publication have been suspended and the referees who reviewed the essay will no longer be used as peer reviewers for the journal.
On June 9, Angewandte Chemie shared a more detailed list of actions that the journal and its publisher have taken since the essay was published. The publisher has established an interim editor-in-chief committee made up of four employees from the editorial department of Wiley-VCH. This committee will take full editorial responsibility for Angewandte Chemie. Wiley-VCH has not confirmed Compton’s status at the publication. The journal says it is introducing a new process for peer-reviewing opinion pieces that will rely on experts in the topic of the essay instead of reviewers from the field of the journal. The journal also pledges to build more diversity within the editorial and advisory boards and develop new editorial guidelines incorporating diversity equality and inclusion principles and practices. An external review is planned to evaluate the journal’s processes, while an internal review is ongoing.
On social media, some researchers have stated that they have already withdrawn articles for consideration by the journal and others have told C&EN that they are considering ending their membership of the GDCh.
On June 8, 16 chemists issued a joint statement announcing they were resigning from Angewandte Chemie’s international advisory board. In the statement, the chemists denounced “the essay and the process by which it was published” before adding that their resignation “provides the journal with an opportunity to reconstitute the Board in a way that reflects our broader communty and society.” One of the 16, Cathleen Crudden, a chemist at Queen’s University, had originally announced her resignation from the board on June 5. She says she felt she could no longer have her name associated with the journal. “In addition to this one instance, Angewandte Chemie has shown a significant lack of leadership in terms of addressing issues related to equity, so I felt it was time for me to remove my name from their board,” she wrote in statement emailed to C&EN.
The Royal Society of Chemistry, American Chemical Society, German Chemical Society, and Chemical Research Society of India released a joint statement on June 8 that didn’t address the essay directly but stated that “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.” And the provost of Brock University, Greg Finn, released an open letter on June 7, in which he wrote that “The statements contained in the paper are not representative of the Brock community” and that further response was being considered.
Chemists criticizing the essay say that the opinions expressed by Hudlický point to much wider problems within the chemistry community, which has failed to adequately address overt and covert discrimination against chemists who are members of underrepresented groups. “Fixing this is not about removing one article,” says Jen Heemstra, a chemist at Emory University and author of C&EN’s Office Hours column. “It is about dismantling the pervasive, toxic culture that selects for and promotes these values.”
“As an experienced recruiter and a leader of a large group of chemists in the pharmaceutical sector, I can tell you that these views [expressed by Hudlický] are not only factually wrong, they represent the exact types of biases that have long plagued the field of organic chemistry,” says L.-C. Campeau, executive director, head of Process Chemistry and Discovery Process Chemistry at Merck & Co. “In our own work, we’ve benefited immensely from a more inclusive culture and increased diversity leading to more creative solutions to the unprecedented scientific problems that we solve every day in our quest to improve human health.”
In fact, studies have shown that students from underrepresented minority groups innovate at higher rates than majority students, but their novel contributions are discounted and less likely to earn them academic positions (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2020, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1915378117). Also, in one study, scientists from groups underrepresented in the sciences were less likely to get invited or assigned to give talks at scientific meetings (Nature 2019, DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-03688-w).
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.
Hudlický confirms that the article had gone through peer review and that Angewandte Chemie had not informed him before it removed his article from the journal’s site. He describes attempts to destroy his career and those of the editors who handled his essay as going “beyond censorship.” He argues that his article should not have been deleted from the literature record and instead the journal should have invited chemists to write rebuttals.
“The real tragedy is that this article does not represent an isolated opinion,” says Andy Cooper, an organometallic chemist at the University of Liverpool. “Most of us have seen or experienced this kind of stuff up close, and it needs to change.”
The surprise, says César A. Urbina-Blanco, a senior postdoc at Ghent University, is that the views made it through peer review and were published by what he felt was a respected journal. The hard work that chemistry needs to do, he says, involves looking at where these attitudes survive, something that has too often fallen to those who are most affected by them. “Minorities are the only ones starting these conversations when we shouldn’t have to be,” he says. “Academia is where we belong, but it’s not us who need to change.”
This story was updated on June 10, 2020, to include more actions announced by the Angewandte Chemie and Wiley-VCH and to mention a joint statement from international chemical societies and an open letter from the Brock University provost.
This story was updated on June 18, 2020, to correct the title and affiliation for César A. Urbina-Blanco. He's a senior postdoc at Ghent University.