What the ACS Must Do Regarding the Dinosaur PaperApril 25th, 2012
The “Space Dinosaur” paper by Ronald Breslow of Columbia University continues to attract negative attention (1 2), and it does so because the American Chemical Society continues to mishandle the situation on two levels. The first set of problems centers on the press release issued by the ACS Press Room, while the second set concerns JACS and the ethical publication of research. Both sets of problems have obvious solutions, but these solutions require courageous action from an organization that, to many of its members, appears bereft of courage and reason.
Problem #1: The Dinosaur Press Release
We previously analyzed Breslow’s homochirality paper in JACS and its accompanying press release. The content of the paper was interesting, but the press release missed the point. Perhaps in an effort to engage a wider audience, the Press Room ran with a fanciful, poetic thought on dinosaurs that appeared at the close of the paper. In the process, they almost completely ignored the crux of Breslow’s scientific work. I am not alone in this analysis; the release was instantly ridiculed on Twitter and on many chemistry blogs, yet the ACS Press Room left the story on its front page and in its PressPac for a full week. While some news reports recognized the situation for what it is (1 2 3), other news outlets have run with the release (1 2 3 4 5), and as a result, are perpetuating the bizarre idea.
Solution #1: Issue an Updated Press Release and Draw Attention to It
The ACS must strive to communicate science accurately to the public and in a manner consistent with the spirit of the research. Breslow’s paper had little—if anything—to do with dinosaurs. The press release was an absolute farce. To not correct the focus of the release and allow it to snowball in the mainstream press is completely antithetical to one of the fundamental purposes of the ACS as outlined in its National Charter: “to foster public welfare and education.”
The ACS Press Room must pull the original release, issue a corrected version, and forward it to all news organizations that picked up the story. Furthermore, an employee should be assigned the task of posting links to the updated release in the comment threads for any news stories on the Internet where a corresponding comment threads also exists.
A certain degree of courage is required to publicly acknowledge a mistake, and even more is required to step boldly into the light and attempt to repair any damage that was caused. It is much, much easier to hide, do nothing, and wait for the story to die down. But while it is a thankless task, our society has a duty to spend a day fixing this damage before it moves on.
Problem #2: Ethical Concerns Regarding the Paper in JACS
It has been noted on Twitter—as well as in comment threads here, on See Arr Oh’s blog, and Chemistry-Blog—that it appears that large portions of Breslow’s paper in JACS have been self-plagiarized from not one, but two previously published papers (1 2). The most thorough analysis was conducted by Stu from Nature Chemistry, where he took a pen to the Breslow paper and highlighted the portions that were lifted “>97-98% verbatim from” the previous publications. The five pages of Breslow’s perspective are COVERED in ink (1 2 3). [These three photos are a must-see. Incidentally, I highly recommend following @stuartcantrill's Twitter feed.]
Some commenters have asked whether self-plagiarism is that big of a deal. I can see tenable arguments for either side of this question, and in cases where this is true, it makes sense that any journal should be allowed to set its own policy. The policy for JACS is stated in the ACS Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research:
Authors should not engage in self-plagiarism (also known as duplicate publication) – unacceptably close replication of the author’s own previously published text or results without acknowledgement of the source. ACS applies a “reasonable person” standard when deciding whether a submission constitutes self-plagiarism/duplicate publication. If one or two identical sentences previously published by an author appear in a subsequent work by the same author, this is unlikely to be regarded as duplicate publication. Material quoted verbatim from the author’s previously published work must be placed in quotation marks. In contrast, it is unacceptable for an author to include significant verbatim or near-verbatim portions of his/her own work, or to depict his/her previously published results or methodology as new, without acknowledging the source.
Note that this policy makes no distinction among articles, communications, and perspectives, so it should be assumed to apply to any publication in JACS. Furthermore, it is clear from the format and tone of Breslow’s manuscript that it was intended to be a “proper” report of research rather than an essay. The “perspective” label can offer no wiggle room here. To me, the paper seems like a textbook case of self-plagiarism.
Solution #2: Retract the Paper
Ronald Breslow is a powerful member of the chemical elite, and he has led a distinguished career associated with a strong body of research. He has achieved the rank of University Professor, won the highest honor of the American Chemical Society, and even served as the President of our Society. But no scientist should be above the rules. The unfortunate duty of Peter Stang, the editor-in-chief of JACS, is clear. He must:
(1) Delay the publication of Breslow’s paper in print. It is unfortunate that the paper has been published, but unless the originality of the paper is verified, it must be held in limbo as an ASAP.
(2) Investigate the manuscript for self-plagiarism—a case that, unfortunately, seems open-and-shut.
(3) Force the retraction of the manuscript and make a public notice of doing so.
(4) Sanction Breslow, privately, by suspending him from publishing in JACS for a period of at least one year.
No person would relish taking these steps, especially against someone who wields the power and influence of a man like Ronald Breslow. But to take no action would make an absolute mockery of the ethics of publication in ACS journals. Stang must summon the courage to protect the integrity of our field’s flagship journal; the situation demands it.