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I'm working on a chemistry paper about the Belousov-Zhabotinsky-reaction (a chemical oscillator).

I included some information about the history of that oscillation reaction, in particular about Boris Pavlovich Belousov and Anatol Markovich Zhabotinskii.

Boris Belousov was the first to discover the Belousov-Zhabotinsky-reaction (BZ-reaction), whilst Zhabotinsky later continued Belousovs research. See also this question.

In the paper 'An Analysis of the Belousov-Zhabotinskii Reaction' I read the following:

Boris Pavlovich Belousov was born in Russia during the 19th century and was one of five children. His older brother first interested Belousov in science while constructing an explosive to assasinate the Czar. (It should be noted that they were unsuccessful in this attempt.)

I'm trying to check the fact if it is true that Belousov become interested in science because of constructing an explosive with his brother. I searched on the internet, but can't find an other source that confirms or denies this. Neither does the paper where I read this give sources for the claim.

On Google I can only sporadic find a link to a website that (presumably) says it, but I've (till now) always encountered 404-pages, so I've not been able to thoroughly check it.

Should I reject this and not include it in my work?

Or is it acceptable to use it, if I include the source correctly?

Something like:

According to ...., Belousov became interested in science when constructing an explosive with his brother to assassinate the czar.

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  • What is your paper about? History or chemistry? – Louic Jun 8 '20 at 14:08
  • Chemistry, but I include a brief history of that specific reaction in the beginning. Sorry if that was unclear. – ralphjsmit Jun 8 '20 at 14:09
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    In that case I would not add this (possibly false) claim to your paper. Unless you can find a reliable source (but you say you can't). – Louic Jun 8 '20 at 14:14
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It’s useful to consider the potential harm in making a wrong decision of either kind here. If you don’t mention the historical anecdote in your paper but it’s actually true, readers won’t miss out on much, and in any case won’t be actively misled — after all, you’re not claiming the anecdote never happened, you’re just not mentioning it at all. Those readers who want to learn about Boris Belousov’s life can still go and look for additional credible information about him. Presumably they will run into this anecdote. And your paper is in any case a science paper and not a history paper, so no one can accuse you of depriving anyone of critical information.

By contrast, if you mention the anecdote but it’s not historically substantiated, you do a great harm to your readers and to Belousov himself by helping to perpetuate a fallacious myth about him. The harm caused by this type of mistake is much greater in my opinion.

Another thing to consider is the credibility of the source and the level of scholarship that backs up the paper’s contents. The author of the paper you linked appears to be a high school student, and the journal it’s published in is a journal with low standards whose specific mission is to publish the work of budding researchers who don’t yet have a bachelor’s degree. The author doesn’t give a specific reference for the source of this anecdote, making it unverifiable. That’s not good practice, and it may reflect poorly on you to cite such a source without warning your readers about its potential lack of credibility if you rely on it for any information you were not able to verify from other sources.

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  • Hmmm. What "great harm" exactly? The times in which he lived were chaotic. Are you judging that if he had actually done that he would have been wrong? The OP here is suggesting quoting another source, not making things up.. – Buffy Jun 8 '20 at 15:18
  • Hi @DanRomik thanks for the analysis. I agree with you that not adding is probably best. – ralphjsmit Jun 8 '20 at 15:28
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    @Buffy the harm in perpetuating fallacious stories about historical figures is self-explanatory. It could also harm OP’s reputation on top of the other obvious negative effects. – Dan Romik Jun 8 '20 at 15:57
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I don't see any problems with including a possibly apocryphal story in a scientific paper if you correctly note sources. It adds a bit of human interest to your paper. As long as your wording doesn't imply that you have confirmed the story it should be fine. Your point is "interested Belousov in science", not "interested Belousov in revolution".

Not an earth shaking decision, though. It might depend on the tone of the rest of your historical background.

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  • Hi @Buffy thanks for the answer. It might be true that an apocryphal story adds a bit of 'human interest', but I don't want to suggest that I back the rumour.. – ralphjsmit Jun 8 '20 at 15:30

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