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New JACS EiC Erick Carreira: “correct your work-ethic immediately”

Erick Carreira's letter to Guido, from 1996. You all saw it probably at some point, and now it's being discussed again.

On 3 September 2020, the Journal of American Chemical Society (JACS), the top elite scientific journal of the US learned society ACS, announced the appointment of new Editor-in-Chief, Erick Carreira. A wise choice, since as chemistry professor at the prestigious ETH Zürich in Switzerland and prior to that, faculty member at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), Carreira is the perfect role model and a leader for all young scientists, someone to look up to and to emulate.

But then Twitter folks recalled a certain letter Carreira sent in 1996 to his postdoc Guido Koch, back at Caltech. Here it is, first publicised by Mitch André Garcia on a chemistry blog from 2010:

A transcript:


I would like to provide for you in written form what is expected from you as a member of the research group. In addition to the usual work-day schedule, I expect all of the members of the group to work evenings and weekends. You will find that this is the norm here at Caltech. On occasion, I understand that personal matters will make demands on your time which will require you to be away from your responsibilities to the laboratory. However, it is not acceptable to me when it becomes a habit.

I have noticed that you have failed to come in to lab on several weekends and more recently have failed In show up in the evenings. Moreover, in addition to such time off, you recently requested some vacation. I have no problem with vacation time that is well earned, but I do have a problem with continuous vacation and time off that interferes with the project- I find this very annoying and disruptive to your science.

I expect you to correct your work-ethic immediately.

I receive at least one post-doctoral application each day from the US and around the world. If you are unable to meet the expected work-schedule, I am sure that l can find someone else as an appropriate replacement for this important project.

Erick Carreira

Since the letter was first leaked, people have been wondering if it is real. Did someone pull a prank on Carreira, by fabricating that letter?

Note that in this missive, Carreira does not impose his own rules on Guido, but those of Caltech. In fact, sources assured me that such work practices were and still are perfectly standard at Caltech. Working in the lab late and on weekends was normal, everyone had to do it, as the sources said. Caltech used to be infamous for people working ungodly hours. Sometimes, lights were on in the labs even at 2 AM on a Saturday morning. Other US elite universities were not really much better, or same.

The same Chemistry Blog brought an update, referencing a 2010 Boston Globe blog article by Christopher Shea, which was deleted in the spring of 2016, maybe because it was probably not appreciated by someone:

Reached by email at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he runs a lab, Carreira said that the letter has been circulating for a dozen years, and he expressed frustration that it has surfaced again in such a public way. It has caused him to receive “many e-mails that have been threatening and downright inhumane,” he wrote. In response to questions about the letter’s authenticity, and a request for a more general comment, he forwarded an email that he had sent to an earlier correspondent. It said, in part:

I wonder whether you would think it fair to be judged on the basis of a letter 14 years old, especially when the comments and rash judgments are made without knowledge of the context or the circumstances surrounding the individuals involved. Indeed how does anyone out who is so quick to pass judgement and who is coming to conclusions know that it is not part of a 14-year old joke (or satire as you state) that backfired? …

I am quite sure everyone has at some time or another an e-mail, photo, letter, note, or comment that when taken out of context can be used to create whatever monster one wishes to envisage. After all no one is perfect. Is it really fair to be haunted by these endlessly? I do not know how old you are, but can you really say you have done nothing you would rather forget about and not be reminded of 14 years later? I like to think people grow and change.

In this note and in a shorter one to me, Carreira said that he had been advised by a lawyer not to comment on the validity or the context of the letter. (I asked him a follow-up question about the oblique suggestions that the letter was some kind of joke, but he has not yet replied.) He concluded the email he forwarded to me this way: “Guido and I are friends, who routinely stay in touch.

Aha, so it was a private joke between best friends Erick and Guido then! But wait, why did JACS issue this statement now, which is an apology by Carreira himself:

“A statement from Prof. Erick Carreira: “I regret writing this letter, as it in no way reflects my leadership approach today. I have made peace with those impacted by the letter. (1/3)

In the decades since it was written, I’ve grown as a teacher, as a mentor, as a researcher and as a person. I am proud of the way I work with my colleagues and students and believe that a healthy work-life balance is now more important than ever. (2/3) Whether I am leading a lab or leading a journal, I am committed to promoting a sustainable and positive cultural shift in our industry.” – Erick Carreira (3/3)

So it was not a joke then? Carreira recognised the error of his ways and apologises. Says he now changed his ways which probably means he allows his lab members to go home slightly earlier (maybe already at 7 PM?), and sometimes, they can take the entire weekend off? Carreira’s former lab members (those who made it to professorship) went to Twitter to explain that they used to work evenings and weekends entirely on their own accord and are otherwise grateful to their mentor, and so is actually Guido, or so they say:

It would be nice to hear of those Carreira lab alumni who were unable to deliver an 80h week, but these lazy buggers probably did not make it to professor, so who cares about them and their opinions. They are not potential authors for JACS either, so there.

In my view, it was not the contents of the letter which were the problem. Everyone who ever worked in a lab has been bullied and threatened like that, or at least knows someone who has been. Bullying used to be a sign of a strong virile leadership, much admired and rewarded in academia, especially in US. Only now did things start to change, slowly, as this recent case at Mayo Clinic shows.

Since EVERYBODY at Caltech was expected to work evenings and weekends, the rules sure did not come from Carreira. The problem was likely rather in the way he presented the Caltech rules to Guido: in a signed letter, on the official Caltech paper, with official heading. If the idea was to intimidate Guido, it apparently didn’t work, instead created other problems, even today.

The same Chemistry Blog cites an email by Carreira’s Californian colleague and HHMI professor Robert Tjian:

From now on, I or someone designated by me will take attendance at group meetings starting at 9:10 am. If you are not there, I will not sign your salary sheets. Also, if you haven’t noticed the number of people working on weekends and nights in the lab is the worst I’ve seen in my 17 years. The frequency of vacation, time taken off and other non-lab activities is bordering on the ridiculous. In case you forgot, the standard amount of time you are supposed to take is 2 weeks a year total, including Christmas. If there isn’t a substantial improvement in the next few months, I’ll have to think of some draconian measures to “motivate” you.

It goes on where the Berkeley biochemistry professor threatens to sack all the “lame ducks“. And, did Tjian suffer any negative consequences for that email? No. Don’t put your sadistic threats to your lab equipment in writing, and certainly not in an official headed letter, that is the rule at every university, usually easy to abide by. But Carreira didn’t.

Since in 2010 Carreira was quoted that the letter “has been circulating for a dozen years“, it must have been first circulated in 1998. That was by pure coincidence the same year where Carreira decided to leave Caltech despite having been appointed full professor there just in the previous year (1997), and go to ETH in Switzerland. Sure, ETH is among the top-ranking universities in Europe, and Switzerland has huge salaries compared to other European employers, but Caltech plays in a very different league, in both respects. Pity Carreira was so keen on Switzerland and didn’t want to give Caltech another chance, not even elsewhere in USA.

We do not know in which style Carreira continued leading his lab in Switzerland, but then again, ETH is an elite university and expects its people to deliver high-impact science to compete with the Americans (hence the retaining of Olivier Voinnet). Recently, ETH had its own bullying scandal which ended with a dismissal of the astronomy professor Marcella Carollo in 2019. The Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag reported that Carollo expected “superhuman commitment” from her students, like late-night meetings, weekend availability and not taking vacations. Until the newspapers started reporting in 2018, ETH had no issues with Carollo’s bullying and worktime control, at around same period when Carreira arrived.

Worktime control in the lab is something many group leaders and professors often exert, sometimes they actually pass on the pressure from their own superiors. Carreira was also seemingly explaining what the Caltech expects from everyone working in their labs, albeit somewhat ham-fistedly. After all, it is the only thing you really have in your power as a principal investigator (PI). You cannot motivate people: they arrive to your lab motivated, but under circumstances, they will lose the motivation very quickly, never to be restored. You sure cannot control the experimental outcomes (well, in a way you can, as my readers well know, but that would be research fraud), so you assume that by repeating experiments literally ad nauseam the desired results will materialise. Usually, they do, more on that in a moment.

This explains why it is not just elite universities like Caltech, Harvard or ETH where elite PIs force their lab members to work late evenings and weekends. Even small irrelevant and barely publishing labs can become such abusive places, I did my PhD in one. The idea is always to emulate the US scientific supremacy and publication success by emulating their work ethos of 60, 70, 80 or even more hours of lab work per week. Every minute spent not working the lab is time stolen from research, and a thief must be sanctioned accordingly.

But does working more really it lead to a better or a more productive science? One scientist who did work such shifts in US told me that most of the time she was busy fixing her own mistakes from yesterday which happened due to overwork. In this way, one might end up with negative productivity if you keep on working. Also, no elite journal is interested in how much work you put into your research, or how many experiments you did to assure the reproducibility. Instead, the journal editors want to see an elegant beautiful result; your future employers and grant givers want to see your elegant beautific paper in Nature, Cell or, to stay on the topic, JACS. How to get there? Will doing a lot of experiments help you finally end up with a result worthy of JACS?

No. Before trying to compete with the elite American labs, think: is it really the excessive work time or rather something else which lets them publish in top journals? Are these top-impact paper really reproducible? Are they always trustworthy? Are you willing to compete there?

Well, you could trash all results which don’t “fit” and keep repeating your experiments 24/7 until you get something which looks to your PI like it would be acceptable at JACS. If even that doesn’t work, and you really are tired as hell and need a break, but vacation is only available to those who have published… why not, ahem, gently nudge your experiment into the “right” direction? In the very worst case, you know what the results must be like, right? You spoke with your PI about that expectation so often, in your meetings at midnight or at 6 AM on Saturday mornings. Is it really dishonest to just assemble a “representative” figure in Photoshop, because what else can you really do to satisfy those nitpicking reviewers’ demands? You can always try to repeat the experiments “properly” once the paper is published, right? If someone later complains of irreproducibility, well, elite science in JACS is complicated and this is why you made it and they failed.

What I mean to say, is that when a PI forces their lab members to work late at night and on weekends, their real goal is to break and totally control them. To destroy their individuality, to turn them into submissive drones, their residual resistance redirected towards the lab’s trouble-makers and competitors, whose only goal in life is to satisfy their boss. These are the right people to install as professors as your franchise brand, for sure they will remain loyal and not dare to compete with you. They will all come to sing at your jubilee birthday (which is a bizarre academic tradition to show monarchical power, especially in Europe, like Carreira’s own 50th birthday event at ETH on 4 July 2013).

In best case, these drones will produce beautiful papers for JACS. Some papers will be like these here:

He et al JACS 2020. Elisabeth Bik on PubPeer: “Figure 2C: the mice in the Cy5-treated group look unexpectedly similar to the mice in the CRTC-treated group, except for the fluorescence signal.
Santra et al JACS 2011. Duplicated image and PubPeer comment: “Figure 4: no information about number of experiments and there is a lack of data points in two of the graphs in A and B.
Shao et al JACS 2012. PubPeer comment: “Figure S4 B showing “Fe3O4@NiAl-LDH microspheres synthesized without a SiO2 layer” in supporting information file is identical to Figure 4 C showing “Fe3O4@NiO hierarchical microspheres“. That fake figure was also reused in yet another paper, with different authors.
Paul & Caruthers JACS 2016. Retracted in May 2019

Update 7.09.2020

In case you wonder what the above illustrations have to do with the new JACS editor-in-chief Carreira, read this 2013 correction:

Supporting Information, pages S9 and S10. The 13C, 31P, and HSQC NMR spectra of the {Ir(3)2I} complex 4 were improperly manipulated by the first author to obscure small peaks corresponding to impurities from the Ir-complex catalyst. Unaltered spectra are included in the revised Supporting Information. The changes do not affect any of the conclusions of the published Communication.

It applies to this paper

Markus Roggen, Erick M. Carreira Stereospecific substitution of allylic alcohols to give optically active primary allylic amines: unique reactivity of a (P,alkene)Ir complex modulated by iodide Journal of the American Chemical Society (2010) doi: 10.1021/ja105271z

Update 8.09.2020

On 4 September, I reached out to Carreira, with the press office of ETH in cc, with some questions about the letter to Guido. I received no reply, and sent a reminder today. An ETH spokesman answered with reference to my question to Carreira “How did you change your behavior and leadership style since?”:

Please understand that we cannot answer any personal questions about individual employees.

To my question “How does ETH assure this will not happen again?”, the ETH spokesman sent me a list of general ETH guidelines about “respectful social behaviour” and new rules for professor recruitment and team management training.


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53 comments on “New JACS EiC Erick Carreira: “correct your work-ethic immediately”

  1. And where is Roggen now you may ask after faking data in 2 out of his 3 publications – he’s the CEO of CBDV labs – now DELIC labs in Vancouver:
    Doing what you ask? Analyzing the purity of THC and psilocybin samples – you can’t make this stuff up – fakes purity data as an “award winning scientist” and now is certifying purity? Unreal.


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