Some VERY Suspicious TEM Images in Nano Letters

August 14th, 2013

Mitch at Chemistry-Blog has a new post about a set of very suspicious TEM images that was published recently in the journal Nano Letters.

The associated paper reports the fabrication of pairs of gold nanorods in “chopstick” structures where the two rods touch at their tips and form an angle that the authors say they can tune. Some of the TEM data can be viewed for free in the associated SI file. If you zoom in on the images, it appears that the background immediately around many of the rods is different from the rest of the background field. Hmmm…

from Nano Lett.

from Nano Lett.

 

from Nano Lett.

from Nano Lett.

 

User “spookyjeff” on the chemistry subgroup of Reddit commented:

That is some impressively bad photoshop. Allegedly.

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To which user “FubarFreak” replied:

I’m going to go with MS paint

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Mitch also reports that Leonard Pease, the last author on the paper and an assistant professor at the University of Utah, told Mitch “an investigation [is] underway at the University of Utah into this matter and [he] strongly encouraged [Mitch] not to publish this story until the University completed its investigation.” Pease also “informed [Mitch] that legal action might be pursued by the University of Utah if [he] published this story.”

Longtime readers of ChemBark will recall that Columbia University never explained to the community what happened after it was finished with its investigation of Bengu Sezen. FOIA requests filed by ChemBark and another news organization were required to report the full extent of Sezen’s misconduct to the public. One lesson there [of many] was that you cannot count on universities to investigate or publicize the results of investigations into suspicious data and other possible scientific misconduct. Journalists, sources, blogs, and social media have helped fill this void by making valuable contributions toward identifying suspicious data and ensuring research misconduct is investigated and punished.

Fortunately for Mitch, ensuring that one’s facts are true is an absolute defense against libel in the United States, and the truth is that the above images were published by the authors in Nano Letters.

Finally, if the images in Nano Letters turn out to be manipulated, we should consider the question of “just how lazy/inept was the offender?” Michael on Facebook tried his hand at “fixing” the authors’ figures and produced the following:

michael1  michael2

michael3

Very nice—no more boxy awkwardness and mismatched backgrounds. He reports that “after installing the photoshop trial it took about 5 minutes to do 2 or three images.”

Elsewhere: Chemistry-Blog (original report), Reddit, Chemjobber


56 Responses to “Some VERY Suspicious TEM Images in Nano Letters”

  1. Yigit Altay Says:

    “If you’re doing something wrong don’t do it perfectly, because then it will be perfectly wrong.”

  2. eugene Says:

    There is still something off to the corrected version, but I agree that it wouldn’t be immediately obvious to me. Then again, I’ve never made nanorods, maybe there is something else about them that is suspicious.

    After this, I suspect it will be off to LinkedIn for many to remove ‘Photoshop’ as one of their skills in computer programs.

  3. PGMChem Says:

    The funny (sadly funny, but funny nonetheless) is that not only the authors did not care to produce actual evidence, but also did not care to produce an authentic-looking fabricated evidence.

  4. physics Says:

    How this kind of paper could be published in Nano Letters? Did the reviewers reviewed this paper under a strong sunshine, have to wear a black glass, so did not find these obvious suspicious TEM Images?

  5. OMFG Dihydrogen Oxide!! Says:

    The authors also had the audacity to put author contributions (LOL and epic facepalm).

    According to the author contribution section (at the end):

    -RA is the one who collected the “TEM images” and compiled the manuscript.
    -BJR analyzed the TEM images and produced the histograms.
    -LFP designed and supervised the entire project and assisted in manuscript preparation.

    RA is Suspect #1. Truly a no brainer. The TEM images in question were from him and he also took on the mantle of corresponding author.

    LFP is Suspect #2. The buck stops with him. He’s responsible for allowing this to be published. Although I am quite curious as to why he abstained from being corresponding author if he designed and supervised the project…

    BJR is Suspect #3. For this guy, it’s a flip of a coin. For him to analyze the TEMs and to let this go, he had to be either complicit on the alleged fraud, or remarkably incompetent to not see the “artistic license”. One could argue that he took the legit TEMs of RA and manipulated the angles himself for the analysis, but why do that for a second author spot? However, I have a…gut feeling…that this kid was simply “following orders” and didn’t want to piss off his co-workers by being a whistleblower.

  6. Anna Says:

    This is the worst case I’ve ever seen, but I guarantee it is not unique. EMs are woefully easy to manipulate, especially in less obvious ways. People use image processing and filtering to change contrast to suit their needs, and then not mention it in publication. This is really embarrassing for Nano Letters.

  7. Mitch Says:

    @OMFG Dihydrogen Oxide!!

    Be gentle, BJR was just an undergrad in a research program.

  8. ZNP Says:

    Shocking! This is one where the reviewers really did mess up, more so than the Dorta paper. You can see the Photoshopping in Fig 4. The reviewers ought to have been taking a good look at the TEM.

  9. isotopeeffect Says:

    It’s at least gratifying to have a case of misconduct where there is very little reasonable doubt.

  10. FutureWeird Says:

    Photoshop newbs! Changing the layer to an “overlay” or “soft light” would have solved this and taken approximately 2 seconds.

  11. sad panda Says:

    There is a post on Chem Blog that praises the editors/reviewers for publishing this article. That way the fraudsters are outed publicly, rather than receiving (presumably) private attention.

    To a certain extent I agree that it’s better that this be public, we all now know to take none of these peoples’ work seriously. However, I highly doubt the editors/reviewers had that anywhere in their minds and instead were just totally oblivious.

    Whatever the case, this is embarrassing for the authors (understatement), embarrassing for the journal (who has confidence in nano these days anyways, though?), and for the ACS in general (who cares?).

  12. craigFWTX Says:

    The review process is obviously a joke now for someone not to notice this; including the PI! I’m hoping they retract this paper.

  13. A recent PhD Says:

    I believe, must reviewers assume the principle of innocence. When you review a paper, you’re usually not trying to look for proof that the results are fake, you read the science and see if the conclusions based on the experiments they performed as well as the explanations they give are satisfactory.
    I honestly don’t think you would zoom on an image just to see if it wasn’t edited.

  14. sad panda Says:

    A recent PhD:
    You don’t need to be looking for anything in particular to notice the editing done in those images. Besides that, I think it’s the reviewers job to scrutinize the entire manuscript, including figures, especially if the crux of the paper relies on TEM data.

  15. A recent PhD Says:

    @Sad Panda

    I’m a solid state chemist, so I’m not an expert on TEM, I just think that the printout doesn’t look suspicious, I honestly don’t think anyone with the right zoom wouldn’t see that the image is fake, hence, the reviewers saw the image and didn’t really payed that much attention to it, I mean, they say the angle changes and you can clearly see that without zooming. Why would you zoom other than to check the quality of the image?

  16. OMFG Dihydrogen Oxide!! Says:

    @Mitch Duly noted. That leaves two then.

  17. Paul Bracher Says:

    The paper was published on June 19th, so it took almost two months for this story to get out. Is that how long it takes for a paper to get a reasonably close reading—by an author, reviewer, editor, production assistant, *OR* journal subscriber?

    One wonders how many papers never get read at all.

  18. Just Some Chemist Says:

    I remember reading this paper when it was in ASAP, thinking it was cool that this was done with gold, and then looking at the data in the paper and immediately thinking, “That data looks fake. What kind of TEM looks like that?” Kind of can’t believe my suspicion was right.

  19. SpeedyGonzales Says:

    I think that the insect turds just naturally have little squares around them and all look the same. No photoshopping here. Why not just throw out some rice on a piece of construction paper and upload a photo of that? It is cheaper than a TEM or a computer for photoshop.

  20. Jose Wales Says:

    As the naysayer: I hate when everyone jumps o the reviewers without details. First, you assume they saw these images. Is it not possible that one of the reviewers asked that they be included and never saw the final version? Second, sometimes the PDF version available for review is low resolution. I personally still like to print these files out to read and I doubt that it would be that easy to see on a printed version (I am sure someone can prove me wrong – but my eyesight is not nearly as sharp as it was).

    Now that it has been pointed out, I think it is more than obvious that there is image manipulation. Again, like Dorta, let’s see how this plays out. Seeing the PI is not the corresponding author, there is a chance that he never saw the paper (although I believe that ACS sends an email to all authors that a paper is submitted to eliminate exactly this issue).

    Maybe somebody with some balls should contact the first authors adviser at UL-Lafayette and figure out why he only got an MS there. There might be some underlying probable cause….????

  21. dftninja Says:

    @Anna

    what is wrong with changing contrast of EM images? There is nothing wrong with it. You are supposed to collect images flat, as it as gray as possible with as much detail as possible with nothing near black or white level, but it however looks very bad to the eye and difficult to tell features. you are then expected to correct it and make what you need to show easier to see for a publication. it’s standard procedure in photography and in electron microscopy. the only thing I would look down upon is inverting the brightness levels, using digital filters such as noise reduction, or manipulating only part of an image without specific mention.

  22. Nick Says:

    “Pease also “informed [Mitch] that legal action might be pursued by the University of Utah if [he] published this story.”

    Is anyone bothered by this?

  23. Just Some Chemist Says:

    @ Jose Wales:

    The TEM data in the manuscript (not the SI – the manuscript) looked highly suspect to me when I read it in the ASAP, and I just looked at it again to be sure before posting, and it still looks suspicious to me. This was in the manuscript, not just the SI. I’d say it’s justified here that people should be questioning the reviewers and more so the editors handling this submission. Have we learned nothing from the sodium hydride oxidation debacle?

    I agree with you that it seems VERY strange that the PI is not the corresponding author here. Every now and then you’ll get a grad student who goes rogue and submits a paper to a journal without the PI’s knowledge and/or consent. Most of the time, that will result in the grad student getting fired. In this case, the grad student has already moved on, so it seems to me that the former grad student took it upon himself to write and submit this paper, although I can’t be sure about it at all, for whatever reason. Who knows what will happen if that was actually the case. I’m reminded of the news story of a former post-doc trying to submit his work to journals, and the former PI has to get it blocked because he owns the research and not the post-doc.

  24. Mitch Says:

    @Nick.

    I am. :/

  25. Chemist 2.0 Says:

    This story and other recent incidents are really bad and make me both sad and angry.

    I’m wondering how many fabricated images are never questioned because the villain had some basic image editing skills. The academic publishing system relies on researchers’ integrity and mutual trust. Therefore, whenever discovered, these rotten eggs need to be sorted out so that they don’t infest the whole system.

    The point that the University of Utah threatened Mitch not make this suspected fraud public also sheds a bad light on the institution. It’s understandable that they want to protect their institute’s academic reputation, but that is only possible by taking these issues seriously and not trying to cover them up. So thank you for sharing this story with us Mitch. I think their attempt at intimidation is without any grounds.

  26. Hemant Says:

    A very good example of how not to use Photoshop. Black day for Nanol etters.

  27. Does science self-right? | Ferniglab's Blog Says:

    […] has clearly been subjected to manipulation. This has been blogged on at length by others here and here We can add to this the comment in SI from the PI that found its way, inadvertently, into the […]

  28. SC SynthGuy Says:

    I can see how this wouldn’t look as suspicious when printed out, but once you even consider the possibility and spend a couple of seconds examining the images, it is immediately apparent something isn’t right. I second the idea of MS Paint being used. Sloppy cut & paste job.

    @Paul Bracher – Probably more papers go unread than we would like to admit.

  29. kdog Says:

    @Jose

    UL Lafayette offers only a handful of PhD degrees, and none in chemistry or chemical engineering. The closest is in “Systems Engineering.” So that (and a desire to get a PhD from a better-known institution) are most likely why he “only got an MS” there. Plus he’s a chemical engineer, not a chemist.

  30. Dave Says:

    It’s not often that the corresponding author’s contact info is a Gmail account…

  31. polychem Says:

    I just discovered chembark and I just read about some important problems regarding recent papers (and older ones, like the Bengu’s case).
    This is very sad for our field.
    On one hand, I think it is important to carry out investigations regarding these issues etc (and to take actions). On the other, I am fearing that it is going to damage the image that the general public has of Science. I just hope it’s not going to lead to a complete rejection of science in our society. If these stories come out one day on TV or in the newspapers, that would be terrible. Journalism doesn’t really exist anymore and there is a big chance the coverage would be very emotional.
    I would hate to be working in a field where everybody would suspect everybody…you know…some kind of “witch hunt ” feeling…

    That being said, it doesn’t excuse the misconduct of a few authors.
    But let’s not be fools and think that scientific misconduct (or fraud) will one day disappear. This kind of behavior always existed.

  32. Ojo Says:

    Should we really blame the reviewers? It is not their resonsibility to mistrust data, although, in this case they all must have had poor eye sight. The entire blame should be on the authors. This is an actual “Schoen” case, the intentional and malicious fabrication of false data.

  33. bacon Says:

    From RateMyProfessors.com:

    “One day after class, I asked Leonard J. Pease III about his research. Many profs would have been enthusiastic: Pease sneered, told me he didn’t have time and walked away. He acts like he’s too good for Utah–the truth is he’s not a good enough teacher, or nice enough person to be here. Rest of the ChemE dept is great; he’s just a bad apple.”

  34. Umbisam Says:

    What about the ACS Nano paper that Mitch also mentions? If the images were manipulated in the ACS Nano paper, it means that they used to put more time into it but got lazy with the current paper. Strange that Pease is not the corresponding author in the Nano Letters paper. ACS always emails the authors when a paper gets submitted. If a grad student pulled a fast one on me, I would contact the editor immediately and demand that the paper be withdrawn.

    @Polychem – Scientists/engineers will always be taken seriously. I can’t say the same for nano-chopsticks.

  35. Joe referee Says:

    The systems engineering PhD at ULL is part of every engineering department. So one could get a PhD through the ChemE department. This is becoming more common that a college offers only a single PhD (more so in States that don’t want competing PhD degrees). Once a cheat, always a cheat so I’ll bet this is not the first time. Just the first time getting caught in a public forum. oops.

  36. Umbisam Says:

    @Bacon – Ratemyprofs is a website for disgruntled students. It deserves no consideration. What does deserve attention are those curious boxes around the “nano-chops”.

  37. Seb Says:

    Just found out the Nano Lett papers is indicated as “retracted over the integrity of the data”: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl400959z. Still waiting to see the fate of the ACS Nano paper.

    (also realized that the TEM grid on images 4b and 4f is the same…)

  38. Tiny Says:

    Hey, it’s only a 10^-9 fake out. What’s the big deal? Give the authors, editors, and referees their nano-punishment and move on.

  39. Nano Letters retracts chopstick nanorod paper questioned this week on chemistry blogs – Nouvelles et satellite scientifique Says:

    […] story made its way around the blogosphere, from Chemjobber to ChemBark to In The Pipeline, and took a turn on Reddit. The retraction appeared sometime […]

  40. Bert Says:

    Shouldn’t such articles stay online and be supplemented by a statement from the editors? Removing the paper from the ACS website could be viewed as a cover-up operation and a missed opportunity to teach the community some very important lessons.

  41. Just some chemist Says:

    Bert,

    The article is remaining online as “supporting information”.

  42. TsOH Says:

    Nano-shopsticks

  43. Not my real name Says:

    Perhaps the first author is a “superstar” grad student who could do no wrong? (sarcasm) Sound familiar?

    “Raj Anumolu, Ph.D., Receives 2012 AIChE Separations Division Graduate Student Research Award”

    http://www.che.utah.edu/2012/07/05/raj-anumolu-ph-d-recieves-2012-aiche-separations-division-graduate-student-research-award/

  44. DC Says:

    Figure 4 b and 4f are taken from the same region of the carbon grid.. but at different magnifications????… a quasi-crystal carbon grid should have been the focus of this article.. ..

  45. TEMguy Says:

    Hahah good catch DC. You can also compare Fig 4c and Fig S2e which are supposed to be the same image. Two extra nanorod pairs miraculously appeared for the main text.

  46. Umbisam Says:

    To me this paper is way more serious than Reto or the NMR. Blatantly making up the core data of a paper is worse than a PI asking a student to fake an EA or someone hiding impurities in an NMR. And people have shown that a much better job of faking the images could have been done. So what out there have we missed?

  47. A recent PhD Says:

    This paper has been retracted!

    http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/nano-letters-retracts-chopstick-nanorod-paper-questioned-this-week-on-chemistry-blogs/

  48. Tan Says:

    When some people try almost everything (photoshop, misuse of words like graphene, large quantity, high quality…) to decorate their paper to make it published in high IF journals, I cannot stop wondering whether building the journals’ hierarchy can be helpful to the allocation of the resources.

  49. Dave Fernig Says:

    I think the view that because the manipulated “data” are in the manuscript is more serious than if they were in SI is wide of the mark. SI is not a dumping round, simply a place to put supporting information, without which the paper won’t make sense. Bear in mind the recent case where a comment in SI to a postdoc to make up an elemental analysis went viral.

    Data manipulation is far more widespread than we realise. Moreover, it is very difficult to get journals to act. See David Vaux’s excellent guest post at retraction watch, my own posts on the difficulty science has with self righting and the proliferation of corrections. For example, in the case of stripy nanoparticle data, where the use of the same data to describe different experiments with different materials has resulted in corrections in Nat Mat and PNAS. If a lab is so sloppy as to mix up figures at the time of publication, how come their records get miraculously tidy when it is time to “find” the real data that actually describe the experiment described in the paper?

    So it is nice to see Nano Letters retract this paper, it would be better if ACS and other journals were much more proactive in this respect.

  50. Florent Seichepine Says:

    Just one other question for somebody who didn’t use TEM a lot.
    When you are using a grid to observe object like powder or nanoparticles. The object are supposed to be attached to the grid and not in the holes, isn’t it?

  51. Dmitry Says:

    2 Florent Seichepine:
    No. Usually they are attached to the carbon film, which cover all the grid. One should apply the carbon film itself (it is really easy procedure) or buy grids already covered.

  52. none Says:

    Though these are clearly fake in the ultra-zoom, my experience reviewing papers is similar to a few others here – you don’t really look for faked data so much as evaluate whether the proposed mechanisms and analysis are adequately supported by the data presented. You also evaluate whether the work is appropriate for the journal, as each journal has its own subject area and type of article. It’s more like grading a paper than checking it for plagiarism. Whether you believe this is proper is another story, but I think it’s how most people approach it.

    Further, many nanoparticles, especially rods and wires, tend to have polymeric capping agents which sometimes show as faint outlines in perfectly legitimate TEM and SEM. You don’t always see them, depending on charging and such, but it’s not uncommon either.

  53. SallyMae Says:

    From RateMyProfessors’ entries on Leonard Pease: “Accused me of cheating on an exam…”

    Pot, kettle, like that.

  54. Ignacio Says:

    Great article, exactly what I was looking for.

    video poker slot – Ignacio,

  55. none Says:

    That investigation by the University of Utah should be coming out soon, shouldn’t it? I think it was due in December and it’s already March.

    Meanwhile, Pease (or some relative of his) has apparently been trying to clean up his RateMyProfessors.com entries. All the bad comments have been deleted and a bunch of flattering ones mysteriously appeared in January.

  56. mystique3 Says:

    has the professor been suspended? what happened to the student? any idea? are they still holding positions that someone else is worthy of?


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