Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ashton Scientific requiring short online review of paper in order to interview for a position?

Here's an interesting e-mail that's been passed along (redacted for privacy) from Ashton Scientific, a company that was covered recently in a Daily Pump Trap for their positions in Boston:
Thank you for your note and your interest in Ashton Scientific. After further review, we'd like to invite you to continue the interview process.
For the next step in our recruiting process, Ashton and other chemical companies have started asking applicants to visit a new website, www.scibase.co, and submit *at least one short review* of papers they’ve tried to replicate. We will be using such reviews to aid our recruiting process. A few points to keep in mind:
  1. You do not need to replicate any new experiments - you only need to discuss previous work you have tried to replicate (from old lab notebooks, etc.)
  2. You do not need to choose a paper that is already on the list - you can add a new paper and then review it.
  3. Reviews can be as thorough as desired, but at a minimum should include comments on experimental reproducibility. ​
  4. Reviews will be judged on clarity, informativeness, inclusion of experimental results, and provision of useful recommendations. 
Positive as well as critical reviews are encouraged. (For a simple example, see http://scibase.co/listings/index/l/133655) You can post under your own name, or – if you prefer – can post anonymously, but in either case, please e-mail me the URLS of your reviews.  
After you have emailed back the URLs, we will examine your reviews and based upon that select candidates for phone interviews. We will judge candidates based upon the quantity and quality of reviews, and ask that the reviews be completed in the next 7 days.
It looks to me as if SciBase is a pretty standard paper review website, not unlike PubPeer or the zillions of other attempts to start post-publication online peer review sites. (UPDATE: I note that it advertises itself as "Yelp for Synthetic Chemistry", which I find an appealing idea)

I could believe that this is somewhat harmless, but I'd like to know a few things:
  • What is the relationship between Ashton Scientific and SciBase? Their websites certainly look similar, but that doesn't mean anything. 
  • Who are the other chemical companies that are doing this?
  • Does Ashton Scientific make money on SciBase's reviews/hits? Could they in the future? 
  • If Ashton Scientific does indeed make money of SciBase, isn't this requiring free work of applicants?  
Readers, what do you think? (This is reminiscent of Zappos' requiring new applicants to join their social network, rather than submit a résumé, but lots more suspicion raising.)

UPDATE: The founders of SciBase respond. Seems to me that question 1 has not been answered, but questions 3 (no) and 4 have been (no.) 


  1. I am not sure I understand. Is it a common practice (outside of China) to replicate a complete paper? A prep, may be two, but the whole thing?

  2. Great, more hoops to jump through. I won't be long before it's less costly -both in time and energy- to start your own company and try your luck in entrepreneurship than to jump through all these elaborate hoops employers throw your way.

    1. The next step in the interview process is to attempt the cinnamon challenge and post your attempt to our website. Selected finalists will then be required to eat some expired mayonnaise we found in our fridge. Now, bark like a dog and crawl around on the ground on all fours!

      It's obvious that companies have confused the best qualified worker with the most desperate.

  3. I had a CRO in the Boston area that gave me a writing assignment as part of the interview process. It was more market research than replicating experiments, and definitely felt like I was doing free work.

  4. Dear ChemJobber,

    We are the founders of SciBase.co: one of us a chemistry- industry veteran, and the other a web developer. As one of us is a frequent visitor to your blog, we were delighted to see this recent mention of SciBase and hope that we can help clarify a few issues for the ChemJobber community.

    Why SciBase Started
    We started SciBase (just this year!) for three reasons:

    1. Despite the peer-review process, we saw first-hand how often results reported in the literature were either vague or irreproducible.

    2. We saw how much time, money, and energy was spent trying to reproduce results that weren't going to happen.

    3.We saw how difficult (and, perhaps, dangerous from a career perspective) to openly discuss published literature.

    We wanted to provide a way for chemists to be better informed about how well other people had been able to reproduce published reactions, as well as variations and possible improvements tried (for example, if you visit http://scibase.co/listings/index/l/133659 you can see that this reviewer was able to improve yields from 46% to 90%.)

    Moreover, we wanted to enable people to post anonymously if they choose to maintain privacy, but still require them to provide details about their degree and experience level, so that fellow chemists can make their own assessments about the credibility of the reviewer. Because of the obvious issues that can arise when encouraging free discussion, we are also choosing to remain anonymous for the time being. While no system is perfect and we have a lot of improvements in mind, we hope that this is a start.

    The Job Hunt
    There was one more reason as well: since one of us was in charge of recruiting, we also know how difficult it is for companies to sort through the hundreds of resumes they receive to find the folks they're looking for. This provides a disservice to the job-seeker as well - the best-qualified candidates sometimes get missed or looked-over; or - as too often happens - someone gets hired simply because of the school they went to, the previous company they worked for, or how well they interview, instead of the thing that (we argue) matters the most: being a good scientist.

    We've been on both sides of the interview table; the difficulty, frustration, and hoops that come with the job hunt; and the difficulty of trying to find the right person for the job. Our hope is that SciBase ends up making this process eaiser: a concrete way for scientists to highlight their skills, and for employers to find the candidates they need.

    With all that said, let us answer a few of your questions more directly: We are currently talking to a number of companies and recruiters about using our site to aid recruiting. Such companies do not receive any money from us, and the choice of whether or not they want to use our site directly (meaning asking candidates provide links to reviews as part of the interview process), or indirectly (meaning simply searching SciBase for reviews by the the applicant, similar to how many employers use Facebook and LinkedIn) is of course completely up to them.

    Since we know how active this blog can be we will not be making further comments on this post, but if there are further comments, questions, concerns, or (most helpfully) suggestions for improvement, you can reach us as support@scibase.co

    We'd like to thank ChemJobber for all the work he/she does on the blog, and for the active community that engages here. We hope that you will find SciBase useful, and will consider contributing to the ongoing discussion.

    The SciBase Founders

    1. Thanks for replying, folks.

    2. After some years in industry I am hard pressed to recall "reproducing" a procedure from a paper or a patent. In real life environment one is mostly interested in applying a synthetic methodology to make targets specific to your projects. These compounds may be analogous to the ones described in the literature, but not identical. In addition, these structures often are proprietary, so disclosing them would be an extremely bad idea. In addition, if one is unemployed (which is a pretty common situation when one looks for a job), one does not have access to lab notebooks and would have to rely on memory only when putting together a review. It appears to me that SciBase as an interviewing tool would screen out a large pool of highly qualified applicants, unless these issues are somehow addressed. But perhaps, screening out qualified applicants is the whole point.

  5. A well known pharmaceutical company, during the interview, made me diagram FULL reaction mechanisms out of the blue. This was in ADDITION to the talk that I had to give. I had the worst headache ever after that interview. I had another company give me a WRITTEN organic chemistry exam. These companies are getting ridiculous with their interview requirements.

    1. Huh, that's interesting. Feel free to e-mail me w/details at chemjobber -at- gmail-dot-com

      I wouldn't really have a problem with a company that asked me to do my best handstand during an interview. However, if they were posting that handstand to their own handcrafted social network, driving traffic to it and then keeping the right to monetize it in the future, I'd have some questions.

    2. "made me diagram FULL reaction mechanisms out of the blue"

      Human Resources dit this? Knowing the type of people populating their ranks, I can safely say they wouldn't recognize a water molecule when drawed out for them.

    3. No, it wasn't Human Resources. When you go on interviews for synthetic chemistry positions, you are interviewed mostly by full fledged Ph.D scientists who are project managers. A couple of their project managers asked me to diagram some random reactions from THEIR research.

    4. I think they were being pompous dicks, and the reasons for doing that rather masturbatory (it strokes their ego because they know the correct answer, and they put you on the spot by making you to work for it). It is bad form to ask this kind of surprise questions. Please keep in mind that many industry folks that take part in interviewing are actually quite terrible at it. I had the same experience, few times...

      During or after the job interview presentation, it is perfectly legit to ask the candidate probing question about the mechanism of the stuff presented, but going outside that is unfair.

      Next time, if they come up with surprise question on your interview, ask them for a piece of paper and 15 minutes for preparation...

    5. Is it really that unreasonable for interviewers to ask about chemistry you've not seen before? Particularly when relevant to the job being offered.

      From my own experiences, I was interviewed* at a big pharma company who asked me to talk them through a retrosynthetic analysis of a molecule I'd never seen before. Some of the disconnections were obvious, others less so. They didn't expect me to complete the whole retrosynth in the time they had available, but just to demonstrate what I knew.

      I suspect that 10 minutes or so was far more valuable to the interviewers than any amount of generic, HR-type questions. It's pretty obvious by how someone talks about chemistry how confident they are in their own abilities, and how great their knowledge is (or otherwise). A talk/presentation shows a person knows the chemistry they're working on at one particular moment in time, it says nothing about their wider abilities.

      I've no idea if the target used was something relevant to the company, or completely fictitious, but I can see why asking interviewees about the company's chemistry may be helpful. If you've got a position where a lot of the work depends on, say Nucleophilic Aromatic Substitution, it seems logical to test whether the candidate has at the very least a basic mechanistic understanding of that type of reaction.

      *I didn't get the job, so this isn't just because I did alright out of it!

  6. Hypothetically, if I were unemployed, I do not know how I would go about doing this. You can't take your lab notebooks with you when you leave a job, so I think this would be very difficult.

    I could see a company using this as an additional recruiting tool, but only as a suggestion and not as a requirement for the application process.

    My guess is that the answer to question 1 is that there is definitely some relationship, otherwise why would Ashton Scientific bother?

  7. Bring the MoviesJune 24, 2014 at 5:52 PM

    My boss (A PI at an academic inst) gives a simple 10 question test to applicants for a position in the lab. Basic stuff, like how to calculate molarity.

    I got every question right.

    We had an applicant come from the lab of this really hard-core phys org chem lab to interview with us for a post-doc, she blew every single question. My boss still wanted to hire her. She was attractive and so I think that may have influenced his decision--men tend to think cute girls are more intelligent than not as cute ones.

    Other than that, on an interview years ago in a company that was consumed by Pfizer I was asked to drive the multiple, non-interacting binding site Ligand-Receptor equation used to describe binding curves. Some how I dodged out of the question.

    1. Out of simply curiosity, the text to your response would indicate that you moved from industry back to academia, but as an academic co-worker. Any comments on that situation?

    2. Bring the MoviesJune 24, 2014 at 9:53 PM

      Similar NMH's posted previously. Dont do it, you'll hate the people around you.

  8. Interesting response from the people who run SciBase. A few weeks back, I applied for one of the openings with Ashton, and received exactly the same e-mail as CJ describes. Based on the response which CJ received from Scibase, I am eager to demonstrate my skills through their simple test. My experience in academia tells me that there are lots of candidates who should give potential employers reason to doubt their skills.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20