My Advice to Breslow

April 29th, 2012
This image has been plagiarized from an unknown source

This image has been plagiarized from an unknown source

Since 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 some thoughts to Ronald Breslow as well. Once faced with the facts, JACS pretty much had no other option than to pull the paper. In contrast, Breslow has a variety of options to pursue. Here is what I think is his best course of action:

(1) Stop talking, for the moment. While the “space dinosaur” aspect of the story has gone through the news cycle, the self-plagiarism aspect of the story is only just beginning. By giving comments to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that asks for an interview, you are only perpetuating the agony by ensuring a steady trickle of fresh, negative stories.

To make matters worse, there is probably significant bad news on the horizon: JACS is either going to verify that you violated their ethical guidelines, or there is likely to be considerable backlash from the same group of people who exposed the duplication in the first place. Your reputation is going to depend on integration of the area under the curve of bad-news vs. time. The bad news is coming, the only thing you can do to improve the outcome is to minimize the time that these stories are in the spotlight. You want all of the bad news to crash down like a ton of bricks, then once that happens, you can immediately start re-stacking them.

(2) Get a feel for JACS‘ timeline and act in concert with the journal. The ball is pretty much in JACS‘s court, as they have acknowledged starting an investigation. I have to imagine that this investigation will involve Breslow in some way, so these interactions can be used to get a sense for what is going to happen when.

(3) Try to shape the outcome by admitting some wrongdoing. The case at hand is probably a textbook example of duplication/self-plagiarism. Stuart Cantrill‘s highlighter pen and JACS‘s swift action in pulling the paper—rather than leaving it up—verify this assertion. I think the best way to mitigate the damage is not by fighting everything tooth-and-nail, but by admitting some fault and arguing that the offense is not that serious. You see this behavior all the time in the sports world. In soccer, you’ll see a defender raise his hand after a nasty tackle to admit the foul and wrongdoing in an attempt to avoid further punishment (i.e., getting booked). In poker, players with bad hands will purposely lead out with a small bet in hopes that the other player will just call the defensive bet instead of betting more.

Here, Breslow might volunteer to retract the paper and issue a public apology to avoid worse punishment.

(4) Publicly embrace whatever punishment JACS doles out. This step goes hand-in-hand with the previous advice, but whereas step #3 is designed to influence the punishment, this piece of advice is designed to influence public opinion. Those that see the JACS paper as a violation of ethics will want to be sure that Breslow is punished and learns his lesson. If no such punishment is publicly acknowledged, there will always be questions over whether Breslow was able to “get away” with it.

This perceived lack of justice is the main problem that Dalibor Sames’ reputation has suffered in the wake of the Bengu Sezen scandal. Sezen was exposed and punished to what is probably the fullest extent possible. Her reputation is absolute garbage. On the other hand, it appears that Sames has suffered no significant punishment for his role as a careless manager. He ignored the warnings of several of his subordinates—and in some cases, fired them rather than pursuing the matter—yet it appears that he never lost funding, and wasn’t sanctioned by JACS or Columbia. To my knowledge, he’s never spoken publicly on the matter. Perhaps as a result of this perceived injustice, Sames is a pariah in academic chemistry. When was the last time you saw him invited to a department to give a talk?

In contrast, look at the case of Leo Paquette, who was accused of plagiarizing information from a grant application. Paquette, while maintaining that he never intentionally stole ideas, accepted the (significant) punishment of renouncing all government funding for several years. Whether or not he did the crime, he certainly “did the time”. As a result, he enjoys a rather positive—albeit, slightly tarnished—reputation among organic chemists.

(5) Polish your story—hopefully, the truth. I have no idea what the truth is in this case, but I can see several possible stories that don’t strike me as particularly evil. For instance, Breslow could say he was very proud of this work with homochirality and wanted to share it with an audience larger than that of Tet. Lett. He might have felt the special issue of Isr. J. Chem. and the perspective that JACS asked him to write were perfect opportunities to showcase this work. He could continue to say that while he did cut-and-paste material from the original paper, he thought that he had made enough changes to the manuscript to avoid self-plagiarism. Next, Breslow could admit to making a mistake, in hindsight, and apologize for it. This story would pave the way to voluntarily retracting the JACS paper to free the journal from being held liable for copyright violations…etc.

(6) Sit for an in-depth interview when the punishment comes out. Once again, the best way to handle the impending storm is to get it over with quickly. Pull the Band-Aid right off. You can do this by sitting for one, high-profile, definitive interview. Every subsequent interview request could then be directed to the original one. You see this strategy employed all of the time in politics and showbiz: a star will get into trouble, then sit with Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, or Larry King for an hour-long broadcast that gets millions of viewers. Examples: Chris Brown, Pete Rose, Michael Jackson, Mel Gibson.

Don’t fall into the trap of giving an in-depth interview to a young science reporter or, even worse, a hard-nosed blogger. These people have no name-recognition and the interview won’t be regarded as the definitive interview. You are looking for a Barbara Walters—someone  well known who will ask the hard questions (that you expect), but let you tell your story. You do not want a Tim Russert—someone that will work to move through a laundry list of specific questions designed to probe every contentious detail about the issue at hand. The obvious reporter to target is C&EN‘s Rudy Baum. He is the head honcho at the magazine, and he’s already assigned himself the story for C&EN. Since C&EN is the official organ of the ACS, I don’t think the magazine will want to do anything to soil the reputation of Breslow, JACS, or the office of ACS President. Just look at how Baum’s story reporting the withdrawal of the JACS paper ended:

Breslow is a titan in the chemistry enterprise and a major figure at ACS. He served as the society’s president in 1996 and was the recipient of the society’s highest award, the Priestley Medal, in 1999. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the National Medal of Science (1991).

That’s a pretty fair/nice way to close a story about the start of an investigation about self-plagiarism.

(7) Keep your chin up. Remember that you’ve got strong records of achievement in research and service to chemistry. The community appreciates your many, many contributions; it just wants to ensure that all of us are held to the same ethical standards. You’ll move past this episode, as you have similar sticky situations in the past.

23 Responses to “My Advice to Breslow”

  1. leftscienceawhileago Says:

    When I read this post, I can’t help but think of a Daily Affirmations skit on SNL where Michael Jordan is looking in the mirror with Stuart Smalley (Al Franken) and saying “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me”.

    The mental image of Breslow looking in the mirror and saying “keep your chin up”, is a funny one.

  2. Nick Says:

    “….Sames is a pariah in academic chemistry. When was the last time you saw him invited to a department to give a talk?”

    That’s the bar?

  3. eugene Says:

    That’s good advice actually. If followed it should all blow over. Some other good advice for Bracher if he wants to live and Breslow happens to read the Internets: Avoid Breslow! Old, established professors usually strike me as the vindictive type if you cross them. Haven’t you seen the Sopranos or something like that? You cross these Columbia boys one more time…. Well, just don’t expect me to watch your back when I see a Danishefsky story up next (just putting a random name up, I meant nothing! nothing. I’m nobody! I’m scum, please don’t hurt me?)

    That’s why it’s also good to go to Gordon Conferences. That way you get the low down on what areas of the field to avoid because the published work is being grumbled about, but nothing can be done while the godfather is still in business.

  4. psl Says:

    Sames is talking in france at least…..

  5. wolfie Says:

    and, remember : Sames IS a professor at some high-profile institution, and we are not

  6. Paul Says:

    Breslow has responded to C&EN.

  7. Paul Says:

    Breslow said:

    I knew that figures should not be duplicated, so I redid them and, of course, used a new title and introduction…

    Really? Fig 1, Fig 3, Fig 4

    To me, it seems like these changes are miniscule and not in the spirit of avoiding duplication. Does inserting an incorrect structure for uracil count?

  8. Unity (a concerned scientist) Says:

    Investigations into self-plagiarism in the recent JACS article by Breslow uncovered two earlier review articles with significant similarities (Tetr. Lett. And Israel J. Chem, refs. 30 and 31). However, it seems to have escaped notice that ref. 14 (Evol Life Orig. Biosphere) is a third review article that contains many of the same passages.

    The original research carried out by Breslow’s group in the area of homochirality cited in the recent JACS Perspective consists of one Biorg. Med. Chem Lett paper (Ref 16), one Org Lett paper (Ref 15), and three PNAS papers. While Refs. 15 and 16 appear to have passed the standard peer review process (judging by dates of submission and publication), it may be noticed that the three PNAS papers were treated differently. The 2006 paper was contributed by Breslow without being reviewed, as is the prerogative of NAS members. The 2009 and 2010 papers were contributed by Breslow and sent for review – and published within one week of being sent for review.

  9. Wolfie Says:

    Paul, I have the right party for you : It’s the pirates in Germany, and the gain lots of encouragement from their voters :

  10. Wolfie Says:

    At the same time, the majority leader of the conservative fraction in the Berlin house of (what ?) representatives tried to give his Ph.D. title back to the University of Potsdam before they ever had the chance to strip him (of the title, of course).

    Can anyone understand why he did this ?

    Sorry, I found no article in English.,1518,830466,00.html

    Has anyone of you still learned German at Columbia or Harvard in order to read it ?

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

    […] – ChemBark – “My Advice to Breslow“ – Advice on damage control regarding chemistry […]

  12. Thraxton Says:

    Breslow is correct, the figures are not duplicated. But they are similar.

  13. Paul Says:

    Commenter “Unity” brings up some interesting points, above. I am pasting links into this comment to make it easy to compare and contrast all of these papers:

    Biorg. Med. Chem. 2005: Link

    PNAS, 2006, 103, 12979-12980: Link

    Org. Lett. 2008, 10, 2433-2436: Link

    PNAS, 2009, 106, 9144-9146: Link

    PNAS, 2010, 107, 5723-5725: Link

    Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 2010, 40, 11-26: Link

    Tet. Lett. 2011, 52, 4228-4232: Link

    Isr. J. Chem 2011, 51, 990-996: Link

    JACS, 2012: Link

  14. Paul Says:

    And readers, forgive me, but I don’t have the time to go through all of these papers to identify lifted prose, similar figures, etc. If you wish to do some reporting and search for yourself, I will be happy to provide a forum for what you find.

    Send any material (prose, tables, images, video) to (after you’ve filled in the blanks). You will get as much or as little credit as you wish. The identities of sources and commenters on ChemBark are always held in the strictest confidence.

  15. The Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I have to say that I am glad to hear Breslow admit that he “fell in love with his own words”. In general, while his reply to C&E is not a formal apology, it does seem to acknowledge mistakes which is a good thing.

  16. Rhenium Says:

    Question for Unity:
    Is there some way of telling if a PNAS paper is one of the ones that is publsihed without external review?

  17. Unity (a concerned scientist) Says:

    PNAS papers listed as Contributed if submitted by an NAS member, and if it has been sent for review, it is noted in parentheses. For the three PNAS papers in question, see below the author affiliation line:

    Contributed by Ronald Breslow, February 9, 2010 (sent for review February 1, 2010)
    Contributed by Ronald Breslow, April 23, 2009 (received for review April 16, 2009)
    Contributed by Ronald Breslow, July 13, 2006

  18. Nick Says:

    So, basically, none of them were peer-reviewed.

  19. See Arr Oh Says:

    Paul, I took your advice, and examined all the papers on your list (above). Here’s my summary:

  20. wolfie Says:

    It would be hard for me, if I had to bring up some pieces of my thesis, where I had. somehow, taken over, something from ??

    not myself

    in MY CASE, i can only say, there may be a few cases, but nothing serious

  21. Anonymous Says:

    the author of this blog reminds me of a teaparty right wing jeebus chemist…fucking moron

  22. Paul Says:

    @Anonymous: Touché. Comments like yours—that are so specific, well reasoned, grammatically correct, and courageously backed with a real name—are the ones that sting the most.

  23. Ghost of Christmas Past Says:

    Does anyone remember the Wintershow skit about Honest Ron Breslow’s Used Car Dealership (or some name to that effect)? Somewhat prescient, in a way.

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