Adventures in Ethics and Science

An open letter to the ACS.

Like Revere and the folks at The Scientist, I received the series of emails from “ACS insider” questioning the way the American Chemical Society is running its many publications — and in particular, how compensation of ACS executives (and close ties to the chemical industry) might influence editorial policies at ACS publications.

The ACS disputes the details of the anonymous emails, so I won’t have much to say about those. But as an ACS member (who is, at present, participating in an ACS regional meeting), I’d like to ask the Society for some clarity.

Does each member matter to the ACS?

We all pay our membership dues, whether we work in academia or industry, in research of chemical education, whether a student, a full professor, a CEO, or a chemist who has been laid off to improve the bottom-line.

Does the ACS take all of our interests seriously? Or do the interests of the captains of industry count for more, in shaping ACS policy, than those of the chemists who don’t have quite so much money to wave around?

Especially if ACS is using its resources (as a non-profit membership organization) to do things like lobby against open access, it might be worth examining which members are having their interests overlooked — indeed, which members have interests that the ACS may actively be working against.

If it’s the case the certain interests are prioritized by the ACS, let’s just make that transparent. Perhaps these hierarchies of who matters could even be reflected in the membership dues structure, since it seems problematic to take a member’s money without taking her interests seriously.

What should we know about the editorial policies of ACS publications?

Specifically, are there certain kinds of issues that we should not expect to see covered in ACS publications? If so, is this because these issues don’t matter to any ACS member? Or is it because these issues are uncomfortable for the constituencies within the ACS who really matter?

Coverage of global warming in ACS publications has been a sore spot. For example, a viewpoint by Dennis Malpass published in the August 27, 2007 Chemical & Engineering News called for agnosticism about global warming, and folks have speculated that this slant on the issue — a pretty consistent one — reflects an ACS attempt to appease the chemical industry. (In the October 15, 2007 C & E News, the Letters section includes two scathing critiques of the Malpass piece.) [Clarification: the Aug. 27 piece by Malpass was actually a letter taking issue with an editorial by Rudy Baum criticizing the Bush Administration’s position on global warming. This is not to say that C&E News coverage of the climate over the past couple decades has felt utterly objective and free of concern for the industry perspective, but this was a bad example for me to use.] Moreover, there have been allegations that certain stories have been killed because they would have made things look bad for industrial interests.

Are there any potential conflicts of interest ACS executives and editors of ACS publications ought to disclose to the membership?

The first step to managing potential conflicts of interest is to recognize and disclose them. Transparency would help a lot, whereas non-disclosure can’t help but look like something is being hidden.

As an organization representing our profession in the public sphere, how well are we fulfilling our duties to the public?

It’s not just ACS members who read ACS publications. To the extent that chemists are viewed as sources of accurate and complete information that the public wants and needs, it is foreseeable that certain editorial policies might end up damaging the reputations of all of us who are chemists.

In the long run, that may be much more damaging than cutting into some pharmaceutical company’s profit margin.

I am sure the ACS can shed light on the answers to each of these questions. I’ll be waiting right here.


  1. #1 Tim
    October 25, 2007

    There’s a lot more on this American Chemical Society wiki. None of it looks good.

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