Controversial essay at German chemistry journal leads to suspensions, mass resignations – Retraction Watch

Facing a storm of criticism on social media, a chemistry journal in Germany has suspended two editors who handled a controversial essay that it said “highlights the bias displayed in our field and many others” to women and minority researchers.

And the 16 members of the journal’s international advisory board — which includes Nobel Laureates — resigned while denouncing the essay.

The article, “Organic synthesis-where now?’ Is thirty years old. A reflection on the current state of affairs,” by Tomas Hudlicky, of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, had appeared in Angewandte Chemie, the flagship publication of the German Chemical Society. Hudlicky’s argument included several statements that suggested a hostility to efforts on university campuses to promote diversity.

The journal initially removed the essay without a notice, which isn’t best practice for retractions. It has since issued this statement from Neville Compton, the editor-in-chief: 

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.

The journal followed that with disciplinary actions against staff involved in the publication of the article. According to a statement released Monday apologizing for the piece:

First and foremost, we want to acknowledge the pain and anger that was caused as the result of the Accepted Article by Tomas Hudlicky in our Journal. This was a clear mistake and we deeply apologize. At best, it was poor judgment and at worst, it highlights the bias displayed in our field and many others. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and they violate the values and codes of conduct of the journal, the members of staff, the Editorial Board, and the German Chemical Society (GDCh), the owner society of Angewandte Chemie.

As a first immediate response, the article was removed from the Wiley Online Library. Furthermore, two editors have been suspended from their positions. The two international referees who reviewed the Essay will no longer be used by the journal for peer review. A full investigation of the case has been initiated. As we continue down the path to strengthen diversity and earn back the trust of our community, we will implement specific programs and procedures at all levels of Angewandte Chemie in response to the results and recommendations of the investigation.

The statement doesn’t name the two editors, and it’s not clear if their suspensions are temporary or permanent. We asked Annette G. Beck-Sickinger, head of the journal’s editorial board and a co-signatory, along with Peter R. Schreiner, president of the German Chemical Society, of the letter for details but have yet to hear back. 

Here is the statement from 16 members of the international advisory board:

Meanwhile, Hudlicky’s institution has condemned the essay, too. On Sunday, Gregory Finn, the provost of Brock, released an open letter

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. 

We asked Hudlicky what he thought about the journal’s actions. He replied: 

That is frightening! We are sliding back to Calvinism and burning at stakes. This is absurd!

I expressed my opinions and my words were totally taken out of context. Yet I get a lot of emails in support. … The witch hunt is on.

Updated 1800 UTC, 6/8/20, with news of the mass resignations from the international advisory board.

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