Organic Letters on the Lookout for Data Manipulation

June 7th, 2013

Photograph of Bengu Sezen, Columbia University, ChemistryAmos Smith, the editor-in-chief of Organic Letters, just published an editorial to alert the community that the journal has hired a data analyst and that the editors are inspecting the data in papers (including the Supporting Information) for evidence of manipulation:

I write to alert the organic chemistry community to a serious problem related to the integrity of data being submitted for review and publication by Organic Letters and to outline steps that the Journal is taking to address this concern. Recently, with the addition of a Data Analyst to our staff, Organic Letters has begun checking the submitted Supporting Information more closely. As a result of this increased scrutiny, we have discovered several instances where reported spectra had been edited to remove evidence of impurities.Such acts of data manipulation are unacceptable. Even if the experimental yields and conclusions of a study are not affected, ANY manipulation of research data casts doubts on the overall integrity and validity of the work reported.

Smith went on to state that the corresponding authors of manuscripts would be held responsible and punished by the journal for any manipulation of data, although no specifics were given for what sort of punishment would be doled out:

In some of the cases that we have investigated further, the Corresponding Author asserted that a student had edited the spectra without the Corresponding Author’s knowledge. This is not an acceptable excuse! The Corresponding Author (who is typically also the research supervisor of the work performed) is ultimately responsible for warranting the integrity of the content of the submitted manuscript.

The responsibility to foster a research environment where all involved can confidently present their results, even if they are not optimal, resides with each research supervisor and Corresponding Author. At times, the inherent power of a research advisor’s position can create an atmosphere that leads some to embellish results.

I have noted before that professors (i.e., corresponding authors) often seem to receive the lion’s share of credit  (e.g., prizes, invitations, fame) for great papers, but students receive most of the blame when misconduct is unearthed. I am glad that Smith is holding corresponding authors accountable for the work that is published by their labs. Professors, as managers, have a responsibility to control the quality of their lab’s output. Famous and/or scary PIs should not be surprised that when they badger and yell at students for higher yields and cleaner baselines, some students are going to resort to inflating yields and manipulating spectra. I am not at all saying this is right; I’m just saying it happens, and part of the reason it happens is because some PIs reward it.

Smith’s editorial also makes me think back to our original reporting regarding the Sames-Sezen retractions and how Columbia University completely erased the following section from their policy on research misconduct:
In modern collaborative research, the implications of academic misconduct or fraud go far beyond the individual; they also affect collaborators whose own work has been committed to objective search for truth. The specter of guilt by association may lurk in the background for many years to come. Therefore, joint authorship requires joint responsibility; each author claiming credit for the entire work must also be aware of joint discredit. Investigators in collaborative research projects each must make reasonable and periodic inquiry as to the integrity of and processes involved in gathering and evaluating data. It should be understood that overall responsibility for the integrity of collaborative research rests with the principal investigator. Senior investigators cannot be allowed to escape the consequences of the discovery of misconduct or fraud committed under their supervision.

Yes, they deleted that section DURING their investigation. Of course, Sames is still a professor at Columbia while Sezen has had her Ph.D. revoked. The way Columbia dealt with that case was a travesty—a complete disgrace.

I hope Smith sticks to his guns.

H/T: Excimer
More discussion: Just Like Cooking, Chemjobber, r/chemistry

10 Responses to “Organic Letters on the Lookout for Data Manipulation”

  1. tt Says:

    Great commentary by Prof. Smith and it’s about time an editor hired someone to do this type of data analysis. I wonder if they are also doing text based searching as well to ensure that portions of the written text aren’t plagiarized. As a reviewer, I do this on occasion and found an egregious example where the authors directly lifted a bunch of wikipedia definitions for a variety of concepts described in the paper. The only reason it aroused my interest enough to do this was that the language of those sections seemed out of place compared to the rest (lots of grammar errors in the main text). As a ref, I highly recommend googling (google scholar) portions of papers that seem suspicious. Perhaps journals should do this for the text of all submitted papers.

  2. aa Says:

    I suppose Org lett must have a huge budget these days to hire a full time employee to check for rubbed out solvent peaks. Is this really necessary? How about hiring another proof-reader to fix the awful grammar in a lot of these papers. So are they giving notice for all new submissions or are they going on a crusade through every article ever published?

  3. Harold Says:

    Good job Dr. Smith for striking fear into the hearts of data manipulators! I must agree that this should be stopped by the PI before it ever even gets to the journal for peer review. So holding the PI accountable is fair in my opinion. However, what do you do if there are multiple authors (i.e. 3, 4, 5….10)? Do you blame them all? Have them fight it out among themselves? Cage match?

  4. Hap Says:

    I imagine the majority of the blame would fall on the PI – presumably (s)he was the supervisor in charge of overseeing the work, in most cases also in charge also of teaching (some of) the coauthors and training them. If there is no such author (no supervisory or teaching author) then probably the larger part of the blame would fall on the corresponding author.

    Columbia’s taste in tenured professors seems…interesting. They went whole hog for Sames, including rewriting their rules, as you said. They presumably helped Sames purge the ingrates who couldn’t reproduce Sezen’s work, and certainly haven’t been terribly honest about the whole thing. Snyder, on the other hand, seems to have gotten the short end of the stick from them. Unless they think his work is likely to have problems (which would seem to take a lot of suspicion) or is less likely to be fundable in the long term than Sames’s (possible, though I would have figured that Snyder would be more able to find another research area than Sames), there doesn’t seem to be an obvious reason for their preferences.

  5. Bunsen Honeydew Says:

    Hear, hear! Great take on all this. I applaud Smith’s attitude. I’ve had that same sort of pressure for yields and product ratios when I was a student. I also reproduced the work of others, including a portion of very famous natural product synthesis. It became clear to me that the results were falsified. I was able to reproduce the total yield of product and recovered starting material exactly but the product ratio was off. This was a simple 1 equiv of A + 3 equiv of B + 0.1 equiv simple acid catalyst in solvent X at room temp for Y hours. There was no way to screw it up. I was able to reproduce my own results several times. I reached the conclusion that the PI set a reasonable goal for product distribution (1 to 1, rather than the 4 to 1 they were getting with earlier trials); however the students also had time pressure to produce the result that was demanded. They couldn’t do both so at least one of them lied about the product ratio and they were just able to hammer through with the 1 to 4 ratio. At the late stage of massive total synthesis the odds that anyone would repeat the work were remote. My work (in a different group) was more than a decade later and they were long gone.

    Oh yeah, and while we’re at it, *COUGH COUGH* HEXACYCLINOL! We’re looking at you, Angewandte Chemie!

  6. andre Says:

    It would be interesting if an academic (or similar) with experience in data analysis (so this rules me out, for one) could secure funding for a large(-ish) scale analysis data submitted with NIH and/or NSF funded publications and then publish her or his findings on the matter including a listing of all papers in which “anomalies” were found.

    Not only would this provide these agencies with a statistical baseline for the occurrence of data manipulation and other ethical misdeeds (which is needed to determine whether this is really a significant problem or not) but it would also have the schadenfreude-inducing effect of potentially shaming big-name PIs who have habitual problems with this.

  7. wolfie Says:

    hello, hello

    isn’t she nice ? and yet an Assistant Professor

    which I am not

  8. wolfie Says:

    Paul, will the Jesuits take this blog blog really seriously ??

    or just for fun

    Sant’ Ignazio, aiutaci, ai nostri animi soli perduti.

  9. Some Very Peculiar NMR Spectra in Organic Letters | ChemBark Says:

    […] chemists and readers of this blog will recall that earlier this summer, Amos B. Smith III—the Editor-in-Chief of Organic […]

  10. wolfgang robien Says:

    Bad news: Some ‘strange’ assignments from C-NMR can be found on

    Good news: Automatic verification of C-NMR data is available (BTW: since 4 years !)

    (its free of charge, registration before usage is necessary)

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