The Race to Publish
By any standard, the field of organocatalysis is highly competitive. The rapid growth of new research approaches in the last decade, combined with the short time frame in which experiments can be carried out (days or hours), fueled a frantic race to publish results ahead of others in the field.
The case of Armando Cordova, a researcher at Stockholm University, brought the symptoms of that environment to light in a recent investigation by the university for research misconduct. The university determined that Dr. Cordova failed to cite other work properly and, instead, took credit for discoveries that were not his own; others in the field argue that the situation is more serious, more akin to fraud than ethical misconduct. As one news article noted, “They say Cordova steals research ideas at conferences and then presents the ideas as his own by publishing the results of hasty and often poorly executed parallel experiments.”a In effect, he was able to appropriate others’ ideas and get them into public view first by knowing of journals where he could publish more quickly.
As C&E News recounted the case, Cordova countered that his behavior was appropriate and that he simply practiced ethics that he learned from his mentors during graduate school and his early research career. In responding to the university investigation—which required him to attend an ethics course and submit all future papers to his dean for review before submission to journals—he acknowledged a need to cite others’ work better, but he argued that there will be a continuing competition to publish first.
The university review has not ended the dispute. A continuing debate among organocatalysis researchers challenges the outcome and generates a broader discussion of the viability of community norms for ethical behavior in publication of experiments. Some conclude that the issues need to be addressed not just in the context of a specific university community. Rather, they argue that clearer international standards for acceptable competition among scientists in a given field are needed—not just for the sake of currently active scientists but also for the future practices of students trained in those laboratories. For science, the cost of such competitive publishing is more than individual careers; it tends to diminish the quality of published results. It also reduces collaboration, creates a reluctance to share research results, and generally undermines the trust that has enabled scientists to constructively build on one another’s discoveries.