What the ACS Must Do Regarding the Dinosaur Paper

April 25th, 2012

Covers of JACSThe “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.


41 Responses to “What the ACS Must Do Regarding the Dinosaur Paper”

  1. excimére Says:

    j’agree.

  2. The Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Yes, the ridiculous emphasis on the dinosaur story at the expense of the genuinely interesting science in the paper is the real tragedy since it’s important to communicate the importance of chirality in the origin of life to the public. When I first read the paper I actually ignored the story at the end as a mild attempt at humor and spent perhaps two seconds on it. Apparently the ACS PR engine itself failed to do this. Personally I don’t think self-plagiarism is such a big deal as long as it is a. not gratuitous (which in this case it unfortunately seems to be) and b. extensively referenced. I am still scratching my head about what may have motivated this paper since JACS does perspectives quite rarely.

  3. Stu Says:

    I disagree with Ash. The real tradegy is the plagiarism. The spacedino stuff is remarkably stupid and not helpful when trying to present chemistry in a credible fashion to the public – but hype and spin is just an unfortunate consequence of the world we live in (although this is an extreme and extremely dumb example). The fact that almost the entire paper is lifted word-for-word from a previous publication is the main issue here. Sure, there are only so many ways you can introduce any given topic, so I expect papers on the same project from the same authors to be similar. But they should not be a simple copy-and-paste! (I suspect the minor differences in the text between the two are because of subsequent copy-editing rather than any re-writing). But this case is certainly extreme – almost the entire paper is a copy-and-paste job!

  4. Paul Says:

    @Stu: I know NChem is relatively young, but have you ever encountered a case of self-plagiarism, and if so, how did you deal with it?

    Have you ever sanctioned an author (for anything)? I am trying to get an idea for the length of suspension that this offense might warrant, much like how one compares reckless tackles in football to try and guess for how long a player might be suspended.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Universities and professors are starting to tackle plagiarism with tools like Turnitin. What steps (if any?!?!?) do journals take to detect it? I hate to admit that it’s necessary, but simply screening manuscripts (even a random sampling) against a database of published works seems like good practice after this disaster.

  6. The Curious Wavefunction Says:

    The reason I call the ACS press release a real tragedy is because it is yet another nail in the coffin of the public communication of chemistry, always a most lamentable development. If the press release had not emphasized the dinosaurs, the public would likely have never heard of dinosaurs since they don’t usually read JACS. Of course the plagiarism is extreme and completely unacceptable and Stu has done a great job exposing it. On a related note, I wonder why we don’t condemn self-plagiraism when it’s much more evident in conference power point presentations.

  7. Stu Says:

    No – not self-plagiarism. We have had a case where chunks of one of our papers has been copied and published elsewhere. In that case, sanctions were imposed by the journal that published the plagiarizing paper (I can’t go into specifics about sanctions, but I think it was a multi-year ban at a minimum). Without going and digging, I don’t know what our policies/sanctions are in cases like this. I don’t know if we do ban, and if we do ban, for how long. To be honest, I don’t know how effective bans are – I think a full apology published in the journal where the plagiarizing piece was published is certainly appropriate (with retraction of the article). Maybe for first offences there should be no ban (or quite a short one). Only a repeat offender, who can’t see what they have done is wrong, is probably in need of being banned IMHO.

  8. Stu Says:

    @Anonymous – a lot of publishers use CrossCheck to try and detect plagiarism: http://www.crossref.org/crosscheck_members.html – NPG do, but I notice that the ACS are not listed there.

  9. N Says:

    God forbid any chemist end their paper with a joke ever again. JACS should do something about their press release but Breslow (and all chemists) should be allowed to lighten up a dry paper with a joke now and then.

  10. The Curious Wavefunction Says:

    N: I actually agree with you there. Occasional scientific humor will actually enrich our otherwise dry and technical literature. If they can publish a mechanistic description in iambic pentameter, they can surely tolerate a laugh.

  11. Mark Says:

    The problem’s not with the joke but with the press office putting out a release based around it. Why didn’t someone who understood the paper vet the press release and correct it?

  12. RB Woodweird Says:

    “But to take no action would make an absolute mockery of the ethics of publication in ACS journals.”

    That’s a better joke than the dinosaur one.

  13. See Arr Oh Says:

    @Mark – Agreed. The release could just as easily have read “Are we all descended from space junk?” (It would still be more believable and accurate that way!)

    @N – Count me in with Ash. Humor is just fine, and even encouraged. But, crucially, your intended audience needs to be sure they’re hearing a joke, and not scientific fact. While the #spacedino one-liner would have played well at a conference, it might have been misunderstood on Google News…as, it turned out, it was.

  14. Jim Kling Says:

    The craziest part is that Breslow might believe the dinosaur theory. Read the Huffington Post story (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/12/advanced-dinosaurs-alien-chemistry_n_1421414.html).

    The INTERVIEWED Breslow, and he elaborated on the idea.

    quote:

    From there, Breslow makes the jump to advanced dinosaurs. But why might extraterrestrial life be in that form? “Because mammals survived and became us only because the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid, so on a planet similar to ours without the asteroid collision it is unlikely that human types would be there, more probably advanced lizards (dinosaurs),” Dr. Breslow told The Huffington Post in an email.

    Either it’s an extended, ill-advised joke on his part, or he believes it. And the quote, taken from email, does not contain a hint of a joke.

  15. Rhenium Says:

    Breslow is too well entrenched in the ACS hierarchy, and so no sanctions will be handed out.
    ACS holding it’s upper echelons (sp?) repsonsible is a joke (sadly) and so I expect it to be swept under the rug.

  16. Mark Says:

    Maybe we should all start submitting already published papers to JACS. After all Breslow has lead by example and the editors of JACS don’t seem to mind.

  17. Nature News Blog: Eminent chemist denies self-plagiarism in ‘space dinosaurs’ paper : Nature News Blog Says:

    […] widely read Chembark blog also suggests that the JACS paper should be retracted. “Ronald Breslow is a powerful member […]

  18. Iron Chemist Says:

    Graduate students get kicked out of departments for this type of stuff.

    At least this wasn’t a perspective on catalytic chlorination.

  19. anon-17 Says:

    Considering JACS nor Breslow retracted his 1986 work in which he wrote to C&EN, “the reported results cannot be duplicated” (source: DOI: 10.1021/cen-v064n049.p002), I don’t think he nor JACS will retract this one. He’s already on record defending himself that he did nothing wrong. Why stop at 3 duplicate articles? I’d go for 20, or more.

    Un-retracted 1986 JACS paper is here: DOI: 10.1021/ja00280a065. Maybe they didn’t retract things back then? It seems odd to write a letter to C&EN saying the results couldn’t be reproduced and not at least link it to the actual article. I wasn’t doing science in 1986, so I have no idea what the standards were.

    I’m glad you (Paul & others) are making people take notice of this. It’s important and needs to be corrected by retraction. Or I suppose one of the other journals could sue ACS for copyright infringement…

  20. Anonymous(i.e. Untenured Prof) Says:

    Can I ask, where is the ACS in all of this? Has anyone addressed any correspondence to our society or our flagship journal they would like to tell us about? A few posts ago the Nocera move was discussed and I believe one of the commenters was employed by the ACS (or had been) and at least defended the lack of coverage such moves get in C&EN. Will this Dino-Debacle be covered in an upcoming issue??

  21. Editor T Says:

    Missing in all of what I’ve seen written here and elsewhere on the self-plagiarism part of this story is copyright transfer. Unless there are special rules for NAS members and former ACS presidents (and there very well may so), when you have a paper accepted, you sign the copyright over to the publisher. In effect, this means that those sentences, paragraphs etc. no longer belong to you. For this reason, I’ve always found the term “self-plagiarism”, at least when referring to work published in journals and books, nonsense. It’s plagiarism, plain and simple. While this may seem an overly legalistic view of the issue, at the end of the day, that’s what would matter in the ultimate arbiter of a situation of this sort – the court system.

    This also points to a rather monumental failure of peer review. Any reviewer worth his salt should have picked this up very easily. I routinely paste a few pages of any manuscript I receive to review into Google. Doing this would have identified the problem in less than 10 seconds. I’d be interested to see the reviewer’s comments on this manuscript, if indeed it was even reviewed.

    I agree with Rhenium above; Breslow will face no sanctions from this. Remember this is the same journal that sends all of your coauthors (after you type in their email addresses into their clunky submission system) an email to confirm that you agree to have the paper submitted. This debacle is yet another reason not to publish in ACS journals. They use to be the only game in town, but both the RSC and Wiley have attractive alternatives now, and frankly the pain-in-the-butt factor in submitting to them is far lower.

  22. Chemjobber Says:

    A(UP),

    You’re thinking of C&EN editor Jyllian Kemsley’s comment here (http://blog.chembark.com/2012/02/22/nocera-to-harvard/#comment-12149), where she asks Paul to draw a line for non-C-level moves of professors between universities.

    I assume that SpaceDinoGate will get at least a little mention in C&EN. A full retraction from JACS? I find that hard to believe.

  23. Paul Says:

    OMG…this was on Fox News?!

  24. Mark Says:

    @Untenured Prof . I’ve emailed ACS to ask for their take on the matter. I don’t expect a response.

  25. Breslow’s Chirality Paper: More Than Just Alien Dinosaurs | Healthcare Says:

    […] some unknown chemist, and we shouldn’t put up with it from someone famous. Chembark has an excellent summary of the situation, with recommendations about what the ACS should do next. These range from fixing […]

  26. Link Collection: Space Dinosaur Paper | ChemBark Says:

    […] ChemBark A Blog About Chemistry & Chemical Research « What the ACS Must Do Regarding the Dinosaur Paper […]

  27. The Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Wait, isn’t that post from “Healthcare” an exact copy of Derek’s post? And the next piece on the site also seems to be a copy of another Pipeline post. What’s going on here?

  28. Splitter: Goldrausch im All, Neues von den Dinosauriern « ChemieUnser – Chemie unseres Lebens Says:

    […] Selbstplagiat handelt. Die chemische Blogosphäre ist voll davon: ChemistryBlog, In the Pipeline, ChemBark, CuriousWavefunction. Und hier handelt es sich nicht um einen abgehobenen deutschen Ex-Minister und […]

  29. Double Standard Says:

    If enough folks send email to ACS questioning about the plagiarism like Mark did, and express outrages about the double standard, maybe they’ll have to do something about it. They can drag it though (claiming they are still investigating it) so that after several weeks many of us all move on to the next thing and forget about it. Problem solved!

  30. bad wolf Says:

    @Double Standard: Weeks? Try years.

  31. See Arr Oh Says:

    @Curious Wavefunction – The “Healthcare” blog seems to be an aggregator, which steals from multiple sources and credits only some of the time. The top-level domain seems to be “Nicholas Marocco” dot com, and involves some sort of internet information company called Gateway Partners.

    Someone might want to email their corporate director and remind them not to plagiarize from a POST ABOUT PLAGIARISM!

  32. Chemjobber Says:

    According to this Nature News post, there is movement at ACS (that will probably drag on… and on…. and on…):

    UPDATE 26/04 – In a statement, the ACS says, “We are following established procedure to investigate the claim of self-plagiarism. If it is determined that this is case of self-plagiarism, appropriate action will be taken as provided for in our ethical guidelines.”

    http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/04/eminent-chemist-denies-self-plagiarism-in-space-dinosaurs-paper.html

  33. leftscienceawhileago Says:

    With respect to the dragging of feet and the expected outcome of nothingness, I couldn’t help be reminded of Homme Hellinga. High profile papers that were completely wrong, and suspiciously so, bad things happening to students followed by a lengthy “investigation” with no public statement on the entire matter. He seems to be doing just fine.

  34. Chemistry Blog » Blog Archive » The case of the disappearing (space) dinos Says:

    […] at least ACS are appearing to take action. Although judging from comments on a variety of blogs and twitter  many of use were pretty skeptical that any real action would be […]

  35. Chemjobber Says:

    A (UP): Pulled paper warranted article (by Rudy Baum!) in C&EN: http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/web/2012/04/Breslow-Paper-JACS-Questioned.html

  36. My Advice to Breslow | ChemBark Says:

    […] I’ve already given my advice to the ACS regarding how to deal with the space-dinosaur situation, it is only fair that I offer […]

  37. ChiChem Says:

    With regard to Stu’s and Editor T’s comments:

    Please look up the definition of plagiarize in any good dictionary. The web edition of Merriam-Webser states the following:

    PLAGIARIZE
    transitive verb: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source.

    Note that to plagiarize is to appropriate another’s words or ideas and pass them off as your own. Breslow is not guilty of this. He is recycling his own ideas, in this case republishing his original ideas for a “Perspective”, a type of review. He is guilty of laziness, certainly, and of recycling published material, but this is not plagiarism. And “self-plagiarism”–by definition this is an oxymoron. Publishers may wish to invent a new word for the reuse of one’s own work; but, let’s let plagiarism mean what it has always meant.

  38. Alex Says:

    JACS is very strange journal with very strange editorial policies. I attempted last year to submit comment to one of their recent papers based 100% on experimental artefact. The paper is truly amazing as it claims some chemical modification of material but shows wrong spectra and not expected XRD for PRISTINE material. For material which is known 20 years and with structure and spectra published not less than 100 times. The rest of paper is simply not relevant- if pristine material is wrong. The responce of editors: my comunication not interesting for broad range of specialists and later responce from P.Stang that they never publish such comments since “it only re-interprets data”. They publish only discoveries, but if the discovery is bad joke- they think it is not interesting for broad audience. All my colleagues who know this material are lauphing about this paper, it ruins JACS reputation and they don’t care. I can give link to this paper if anyone is interested….

  39. eugene Says:

    Yeah why not, give me the link. It doesn’t sound like it’s in my field, but it’s the weekend and I’ve got to time to kill. Maybe I’ll take it with me to the beach. Anyways, I just submitted a paper to Jackass a week ago, so when it gets accepted, the reputation should be restored. (BOOM!! Nailed it…)

  40. An Interesting Position at Columbia | ChemBark Says:

    […] An Associate in Discipline, you say? Great. I can think of a few chemists at Columbia who need to be disciplined (1 2)… […]

  41. Srinix Says:

    Dear Alex

    Can I get the link of the paper you mentioned in JACS on which you sent a comment which was not published


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