How Should the Online Community Handle Suspicious Papers?

August 17th, 2013

The latest news regarding the Dorta paper in Organometallics is that Emma Drinkel’s mother wrote an e-mail to Fredrik von Kieseritzky that is posted to his chemistry blog, Synthetic Remarks. You will recall that Emma Drinkel was the first author on the OM paper, and she was on the receiving end of the infamous instruction to “just make up an elemental analysis”.

Dr. Drinkel’s mother wrote:

From: Mary-Anne Drinkel [mailto:xxxxa@xxxx.co.uk]
Sent: 15 August 2013 21:04
To: Fredrik von Kieseritzky ‘xxx@xxx.com’
Subject: Emma Drinkel – the Dorta Affair

Dear Dr Kieseritzky

I hope you don’t mind me contacting you, but I would just like to thank you for your comment on ChemBark. My name is Mary-Anne Drinkel, and I am mother of Emma. We are very proud of our daughter she has worked hard and conscientiously to earn her first class degree at Durham, her PhD at Zurich, and presently her Post doctorate work in Brazil- we know that fabricating data would be alien to her. I cannot believe that her good reputation, built up over these years can be destroyed in a week. I know nothing of the academic community, but the hostile and aggressive comments left on the blog sites are unbelievable. I don’t know if Reto Dorta was careless or has done a very bad thing, but I do know that Emma is the innocent party in this affair. How many PhD thesis could withstand the hostile scrutiny that Emma’s has been subjected to, with these bloggers determined to find evidence of wrongdoing – boasting about who broke the news first.

Emma’s husband has a new industry position in Switzerland, and they will be moving back to Europe very soon; this means Emma will be applying for jobs – she fears this affair will affect her chances, as she would be honest with prospective employers about her situation. They had decided to leave the academic world long before this episode because the competitiveness and political environment of university life was not for them. Emma is devastated that her good name at Durham and Zurich University will be forever tarnished by this affair.

My husband and I have felt so sad and so helpless as these events have developed – when I saw your comment that was sympathetic to Emma’s plight, it was the first bit of humanity I had witnessed in the whole affair, and I am grateful to you for that. Emma will get through this, she is resilient and has the support of her husband, family and friends – but we feel so angry that Emma has been subjected to this through no fault of her own.

Once again thank- you,

Best wishes,

Mary-Anne Drinkel

Credit: Synthetic Remarks

I sympathize with Dr. Drinkel, but when you are an author on a paper, you share responsibility for its content. This responsibility is especially serious for the first and corresponding authors on a paper. With that said, it could easily turn out that Dr. Drinkel’s only transgression might have been a failure to carefully read the published version of her article—which most chemists probably don’t do anyway.

As it stands, it is impossible and unproductive to attempt to assign blame to specific people. We don’t know who wrote what parts of the paper, who was responsible for submitting it, and who reviewed the galleys. What we do know is that the paper is suspicious. It is a fact that the editorial remark to “just make up an elemental analysis” was published in the Supporting Information. It is a fact that the elemental analysis data in Dr. Drinkel’s thesis are different from the data presented in the paper.

The integrity of data is the foundation of scientific research. The community has a serious interest in maintaining the integrity of its data and pointing out cases where the validity of a particular set of data should be questioned. I don’t think that investigations into possible misconduct are best left solely to journals and universities. Time and time again, we have seen journals state that they do not have the resources to conduct thorough investigations of suspicious data, and once they have acted, the punishments are never made public. Where is the accountability?

Universities, often by law, are required to conduct thorough investigations of possible scientific misconduct. But the details of these investigations—even when they definitively identify egregious misconduct—are also often swept under the rug. It can be pointed out that journals and schools have little incentive to identify and publicize misconduct that has occurred on their watch. The community is not served well by this secrecy, and there would seem to exist an important void in the process for journalists, blogs, and social media to fill. These stakeholders can help identify suspicious data, misconduct, and the scientists responsible for it.

On the flip side of the coin, when suspicious data or behavior are identified, scientists who have not engaged in misconduct can get dragged in the mud. There will always be people who read a blog post on a suspicious paper and lump all the authors together without much thought. Obviously, Dr. Drinkel’s mother—as well as another commenter—is upset with my coverage of her daughter’s paper. My question is how would they have handled this situation and similar ones in the future?

The Committee on Publication Ethics has developed a set of recommended procedures for journal editors to deal with suspicious papers. How should chemistry blogs write about them? Should we just post links to these papers without comment? Should we write about them but close the posts to comments? Should we moderate the comments to remove unfair opinions and speculation? Should we black-out names and delete comments that attempt to identify the authors? Should blogs avoid writing about suspicious papers altogether and just rely on journals and universities to tell the community what they think we should know?

I bet there are a variety of opinions out there; I would love to hear yours.


42 Responses to “How Should the Online Community Handle Suspicious Papers?”

  1. mitch Says:

    I don’t think a blog is the right forum to dissect suspicious data. Completely fraudulent data, like the Pease groups’ TEM images, sure. I come across a lot of papers with suspicious data, I just don’t think I would serve the community well if I pointed them out all the time. I want people to feel free to open up and talk chemistry with me, not constantly worried that I’ll find out their fluorescence micrograph was a salt crystal and not actually of a cell.

  2. Ian Says:

    Personally, I believe that the chemistry community is better served by avoiding this sort of voyeurism in the general chemistry blogosphere.

    In agreement with Emma’s mom, the modus operandi of the court of public opinion is guilty until proven innocent. This isn’t fair to the accused, *especially* when the accused is a subordinate/trainee where many factors could have influenced their ethical mistakes. In (bad) analogy to the US legal system: court documents on minors (i.e. grad students) are sealed.

    That being said, the general outrage/pageview spike on Chembark (and elsewhere) indicates that this sort of post is of a lot of interest to people. This level of outrage is surprising, to be honest, considering the sheer number of retractions/errata/corrections that are constantly being made in scientific literature.

    This tells me two things. 1.) people are unaware of the sheer amount of crap research/dishonesty/honest mistakes that occur in the literature, and 2.) people want to be more informed about these things.

    So, reporting on retractions and corrections seems like a good idea. I think the chemistry community would benefit A LOT from having a stronger dialogue about the ethics of publishing and the peer review process in general, and explicitly pointing out cases where things went wrong is a good starting point.

    This is why I read Retraction Watch somewhat regularly and encourage others to do so (and sometimes even learn some interesting science/legal/ethical tidbits!). Maybe we need more of this, and maybe we want it with more of a direct chemistry focus.

    However, Chembark is not Retraction Watch, nor do I think it should be.

    I think it would be within the spirit of the site to report on retractions after some sort of initial ruling has been made, and supply some context for insightful discussion on it. Or, if details AREN’T coming out after the fact (see: Sezen, Bengu), go for it. Dig deeper.

    For example with this Dorta mess, after the paper has been retracted or the correction has been made or whatever ends up happening, THEN report on it… I think it would ultimately result in more interesting angles for discussion (is EA important? what are the submitting authors’ responsibilities for checking every detail of the final copy of a paper before submission? etc etc) and avoid the simple “hey, look at this!!” angle.

    This will almost certainly result in fewer pageviews, but you’re not going to compete with reddit or aggregator sites in that regard, anyway. Might as well go for something with a bit more analysis and insight.

  3. L Says:

    I think your initial report just felt too much like sensational journalism to me. Specially after you wrote that you had t publish fast because of competitors… Coupled with the nanorod images shortly after it felt like every big chemistry blog is now hunting for some suspicious data to generate clicks and viewers.

    Its not a question if things like that should be reported in some way but this felt wrong to me. Maybe try to contact Journal and author before publishing your story. Give them time to comment and deal with it. If they don’t, publish your story here. Do it right and not quick because your afraid somebody will steal your story.

  4. Alison Says:

    You say that “Time and time again, we have seen journals state that they do not have the resources to conduct thorough investigations of suspicious data…” but actually, journals and journal editors do not have these resources. How are they going to investigate suspicious data which may have been generated half across the world? In fact, the COPE guidelines that you cite specifically state that the responsibility of the journal editor is to ask the relevant institution(s) to investigate, persistently if necessary, but not to do so themselves.

    Whether the institutions then make public the results of the investigation is a different matter (and might make for a separate debate). In fact, they are not even obliged to inform the journal of all of the details of the investigation, only its outcome, so that the journal can then take appropriate action to ensure the integrity of the scientific record, which is the journal editor’s primary responsibility.

  5. A recent PhD Says:

    I have to say I’ve always been sympathetic not only to emma, but to all authors.
    I believe the initial coverage, was ok. The follow up entry about Emma’s thesis Vs the paper was more on the sensationalist side. I understand that we all feel offended when someone attempts to get away with faking data, etc. but it’s not our place to be the judges.
    It’s very easy suggest fraud, and to make people suspicious. I had a reviewer once said that my data was almost too perfect… what does that mean? am I a very good experimentalist or am I just faking the data? It got me really angry because I spent 3 whole years collecting it and yes, it was almost perfect because my method was great and the technique we used was really good.
    I hope that everything clears up and that we learn the truth about what happened.

  6. MyTwoCents Says:

    This is a complex, multi-dimensional issue, as is clear from this and prior posts and the associated comments. On one hand, making accusations of suspicious data is a slippery slope. I myself have a repository of papers with questionable data and plagiarized text, but I am not about to “out” every one of these for public commentary. On the other hand, both of these recent cases, the elemental analysis and the chopsticks TEM images, were obvious, published, and publicly available. (Supporting info is free for download and not behind a firewall). So it is out there for the world to see, and the facts (i.e. what was explicitly published and publicly accessible, here the EA comment and the TEM images) are not open to interpretation. In these cases, there is no arguing what actually made it to publication for all to see and comment on, and it is only a matter of time before such things are outed. The motives, the mechanisms, the behind-the-scenes, that is an entirely different story. The question is, how far to take discussions of such blatantly obvious failures of (fill in the blank … author responsibility, ethics, journals, editors, reviewers, …) vs. which types of situations to report on. And regardless of the answer to this question, how to carry out such discussions in a productive way rather than in a way in which accusations are thrown around wildly without regard to the parties involved. Unfortunately when the public is involved (even an educated chemistry public), and comments are anonymous, this is difficult (impossible) to ensure. I recall similar lines of discussion regarding blog posts and comments about recent and potential future high-profile faculty poaches…

  7. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Alison: That’s my point; I wasn’t being sarcastic. Journal editors don’t have the resources to carry out these investigations, so they routinely bow out of them by stating this fact. It makes sense for editors to only go so far as necessary to protect the integrity of their journal. The ethical guidelines and policies of most journals don’t allow them to go much farther anyway.

    Regarding schools, I think you could argue that they should be held more responsible for keeping the public informed since they are the institutions that are awarded and administer public funding.

    @L: Noted, and from now on, I plan to seek comment from the authors and journals before posting. But I will also note that I don’t think it’s bad to take pride in being first to a story. Newspapers do this all of the time. What is bad is rushing to publish and being wrong.

    @Ian: I strongly disagree with the classification of reporting possible unethical behavior as “voyeurism”. I don’t think most people are gratified by the observation of possible misconduct so much as sickened by it. Furthermore, I think the reporting of the Dorta paper has generated much of the discussion and analysis you have asked for. Over 250 comments in a variety of threads have addressed subjects like data fabrication, the value of elemental analysis, and the limitations of peer review. I have follow up posts planned as well.

    My question to you is do you think that most journalism should be done by waiting for non-public investigations to conclude before reporting? Was every single news agency in this country unfair to report the recent NSA revelations before the Congressional oversight committees could conduct their own investigations? Is every single news organization wrong to report that a suspect has been arrested for a crime before he’s been given a proper trial by jury or even been arraigned? I don’t think using the names of scientists when pointing out (very) suspicious papers is outside the lines of standard practice in journalism.

    @mitch: I’d stick an “allegedly” in there!

  8. Paul Bracher Says:

    @A recent PhD: The statement on compound 14 put the integrity of the EA paper into question. I did some background work and found that the EA data in the paper are different from the EA data in the first author’s thesis—despite everything else looking pretty much the same. I think that was worth pointing out, as it is relevant and informs the discussion. Isn’t that the sort of thing you want news organizations to do—unearth facts that inform the public discussion?

  9. Tyrosine Says:

    @Ian. The sense of outrage possibly stems from the fact that the rest of us are doing it the hard, but honest, way. Purifying compounds to EA standards can be a pain, but we do it because it’s the right thing to do. When we suspect that someone else is “just making it up…” it spawns the sort of outrage honest athletes must feel about drug cheats. Science pretty much runs on trust – if we cannot believe the reports of others the whole,system will collapse. That said, I feel equally sorry if any innocent party has been wrongfully besmirched. But unlike you I am not the least surprised at the outrage when cheats are exposed.

  10. A recent PhD Says:

    @Paul Bracher

    I understand why you published the story pointing out the differences, I honestly do, it was a good read and very CSI like, such news in an otherwise quiet (and borderline boring) community is set to make a lot of noise and to get people talking. I just think that it’s possible to have two different EA values for the same complex, it has happened to me in the past, I even got the solvated crystal and then managed to get the non solvated complex by changing a little bit the procedure, which leads me to think than rather than academic misconduct it could be a case of wrongly reported data.

    I believe the differences between the thesis and the paper are suspicious, perhaps a little bit too much for the authors own good, but then again, I really would like to hear the other party (which I understand you contacted before running your story and I believe was the right thing to do) before saying something that could pretty much ruin someone’s career forever. At the same time, anything they say can be pretty much used against them so I also understand why they wouldn’t like to comment.

    I would like news organizations and journalist to be objective, which is way easier said that done. Overall, on your first post you did that, on the second one you went in for the kill.

    PS: I really like your blog and I hope you find my criticism to be constructive.

  11. Paul Bracher Says:

    Thanks for the reading the blog. Also, thanks very much for the constructive criticism; I value it greatly. My pointed comments in this thread are not intended as attacks on other commenters, but as attempts (by vigorous debate) to get to the heart of the issues surrounding how to cover these important stories.

    One of the main reasons I had for starting this site was my frustration over “how the system works” in chemical research. I think we can improve—maybe “fix”—the system by improving communication among chemists and identifying problems so we can analyze and correct them. I would like ChemBark to make things better, not worse. All ideas are appreciated.

  12. Troggy Says:

    “I sympathize with Dr. Drinkel, but when you are an author on a paper, you share responsibility for its content. This responsibility is especially serious for the first and corresponding authors on a paper.”

    -Paul

    I do think these discussions need to occur. And, I think blogs are a perfectly acceptable place for them to happen. I am a regular reader and a fan of this blog, I think it is a service to the community. But, I feel that this should be a place for discussion of the issue, less than condemnation of the acts, and perhaps that this specific article has take speculation a little too far.

    I take some exception to the statement quoted above. That attitude seems to act as the core of your arguments over the last few days. However, it has been heavily discussed, here and elsewhere, the unequal power dynamics between Professors and Students. I understand that there is some additional burden to being “first author,” in particular when that author has actually done the bulk of the work. However, generally speaking the first author has no more say than any other student in “policies of the lab.” It is two very different people who a) perform experimental work to the best of their ability, and b) are willing to take on/criticize a Prof. for their short-cuts. I take some umbrage at the rapidity at which blame has hit all of the participants here.

    Perhaps worse though, is the paucity of evidence of malfeasance in this case. This differs substantially from made up images or fabricated results, in that there is only a single example, i.e. an EA snafu in a single paper. The burden of the journalist (if that is the role you wish to perform here), would be to track down additional papers and cross-verify them with theses, etc.

    If, indeed, the PI in question fabricates his EA’s, etc. that is a huge problem. But, surely, if that’s the case, there is more than one paper that this has occurred in…and presumably they are all available… Likewise, for Dr. Drinkel; If it turns out that she has a habit of this (seems unlikely – based on who wrote the note), presumably there is other evidence somewhere.

    If nobody can find any other evidence, this becomes a pretty weak example. Worthy of discussion, but probably not a witch hunt. In my experience, cheaters cheat pretty habitually – people who make honest mistakes do them sporadically and inconsistently. Comparing this paper and Dr. Drinkel’s thesis is a reasonable start…Now what about all the other papers and theses. If this appears to be a one time thing, then there is no case, because it is impossible to determine what happened without a great deal of hearsay. Only a frank discussion of the importance of cross-checking data, and grinding though the last 5% is warranted.

    Also, if it turns out there was some sort of malfeasance, there is a substantial difference between: “I think EA is stupid, and I’m just gonna make it up.” and “I’m going to fabricate all my work to further my career.” While both wrong, one is a serious transgression, the other just shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the underpinnings of the scientific method. The former is clearly wrong…for all parties. The latter is much more serious for a prof. than for a student – who is, after all, supposed to be in training from that prof. If an apprentice electrician is told by their supervisor to perform a task, and it later turns out the instructions were incorrect and there is a safety hazard, it’s the instructor, not the apprentice, who is to blame. The same principal applies here.

    Furthermore, for all that they are put on a pedestal at times, Profs. are just as capable as being lazy, shortsighted, and opinionated as the rest of us. They are not necessarily selected for their ethical fortitude or their broader understanding. If there was EA fabrication, it seems that the PI in question needs a sharp lesson in why it’s so important that ALL your data can be verified. An explanation, if you will, of the scientific method. But, if the experiments themselves were performed in good faith, I’m not too sure it should go too much further than that. I imagine Profs. can learn their lessons too – besides, they probably developed those habits somewhere too.


    Troggy

  13. N Says:

    Mitch makes a good point, suspicious data is pretty common, this case just happens to be particularly egregious. Focusing on anecdotes like this one does the community a disservice. A shift towards examining the (lack of) standards when it comes to publishing, the bloating of the SI and other trends contributing to such oversights would be a better, if less sensational, direction.

    Publishing Dr. Drinkel’s letter in its entirety of itself feels like further sensationalism (nowhere in the letter does it say “feel free to post this”). There are other ways to bring up the fact that Emma might be the target of a pitchfork wielding mob without invoking her mother. (I realize that it wasn’t posted here first so perhaps the critique is better directed elsewhere but the full reposting of the letter seems unnecessary where a link would do).

  14. eugene Says:

    Is it just me, or did the comments not seem particularly on the aggressive side on those posts, except for maybe 5% of them, if I’m being generous? This story was published in C&EN, Science, and retraction watch, so a bit late to be arguing that if it wasn’t for that damn Chembark and pesky bloggers… I’m still going to bet that nobody’s reputation will be too ruined after this. Now you need to take it up with C&EN and Science who were happy to jump on the ‘witchhunt wagon’ apparently. They have real journalists who get paid money; they should know what’s kosher or not.

    Like others said on the one hand you’ve got a suspicious note in the SI with no actual data (with everything being sorta explainable in roundabout ways) and on the other you have Raj Anumolu with his nanochopsticks. There were enough hints in the comments that people don’t care too much for EA to do it, or love it because they think it’s a magical technique where you give someone a powder in and it gives you the percentages, without all the chemistry and reactions with oxidizing agents that happen in between (where having boron in your sample means you get false results due to it eating up some carbon), as well as the broad peaks of the gases that sometimes blend subtly into the background and you need the software to integrate properly. I’m okay with being a frier and doing all my EAs that I think are sort of pointless, but I hate finding out that I’m a frier…

    Still, I’m not willing to punish anyone for this. I mean, maybe I did something wrong sometime. I don’t remember doing anything wrong, but what if I recorded a yield from a 10mg reaction that I did only once and it was sort of wet? From five years ago, and now some company will find out and they are doing large scale-up for a process and they call me a liar and I have to do a major correction (much worse than that Buchwald correction)! Then my name was on Chembark and everyone was making fun of me and I didn’t know what to write in the comments in answer. That was actually a pretty bad nightmare. Compounded by the fact that I don’t usually dream about chemistry related topics. It made me wish for the nightmares where I forget that there was that class that I signed up for and I didn’t do any assignments and the final is one week away (getting rarer). Still wasn’t enough for me after waking to open my thesis and frantically search for stuff from my dream. Never want to look at that thing again.

    Anyways, I’m willing to bet a few bucks that Reto’s mom also thinks that her son is innocent in the whole affair. Judging from the comments and the huge amount of people who are willing to entertain plenty of doubt, I seriously doubt any of the authors will be blocked from getting a good job in S-Land or D-Land.

    P.S. Paul, whatever you do, please don’t read my thesis. It’s, uh… boring.

  15. Ian Says:

    @Paul:

    I still feel that the commentary has devolved in to voyeurism in many ways. You’re right that great dialogue has also come out of it. This is the anonymous internet; I guess you have to take the bad to get the good.

    As far as your question, of course it would be silly to wait for non-public investigations to conclude before starting to report.

    However, continuing your analogy, what is the science-equivalent to being arrested? Is it when someone sees a fabrication in the SI? Is it when a retraction occurs? Is it when whatever governing body decides to get involved? My feeling is that it’s somewhere around the retraction timeline, and that this is the time to start reporting.

    I think for me, the importance of protecting potentially innocent trainees is more important than timely reporting. Maybe I am foolish for considering the timeline of science different from that of the real world.

    @Tyrosine:

    You’re right, but if we all got this outraged about every single bit of unethical behavior in science, we wouldn’t have time ourselves to do ethical science.

  16. Chemthulhu Says:

    I think that we chemists need to toughen up a bit. Many other scientific fields are less bashful about giving and receiving criticism. I think that it’s great that Paul is shining the light on this paper. I think that we chemists need to be tougher on everyone including ourselves. I would like to see a blog giving good critical analysis of papers on a regular basis. I think that many papers published these days are written by intellectually lazy authors. I think that data is often repackaged over and over and republished. I think that many famous chemists are publishing mediocre papers in elite journals on a daily basis. I think that there many other issues that are just as bad as “Emma just make up an elemental analysis” that are occurring on a daily basis. I would love to see the fanboy worship of famous chemists replaced by regular critical analysis of the literature in the blogosphere.

  17. catalyzer Says:

    Regarding the analogy with criminal behavior, and letting the legal system do its work, in this case there is no recognized legal system. Organometallics made clear that they are not a judicial body. One might hope the universities involved will conduct thorough impartial investigations and publicly release their findings – but there are lots of reasons to think otherwise. So the court of public opinion is basically the only court system we (the international scientific community) have. Here’s an off-the-cuff rumination: ACS and various intra- and international scientific bodies could sponsor a trans-national scientific ethics agency. Universities and journals could then refer cases to said body for judgment (and they would be under great pressure to do so, in cases like this, if such a body existed). Until that happens (which is likely never of course), Chembark, please keep up the outstanding work!!

  18. catalyzer Says:

    Might Chembark introduce a “thumbs up” feature for comments? (I would like to give a “thumbs-up” to Chemthulhu’s suggestion of a place for “regular critical analysis of the literature in the blogosphere.”)

  19. Paul Bracher Says:

    My (current) opinion is that it’s fine to point out papers that have something obviously suspicious or bizarre as soon as the suspicious item is noticed. As has been mentioned before, the authors are intimately involved with this public notification because they have chosen to publish their work—it is publicly accessible. In contrast, I think the situation would be much, much different if a blogger came across a suspicious entry in a lab notebook or in an electronic file on a lab computer.

    Next, consider a scenario where someone on the Internet were to post a screenshot of a suspicious item and a link to the paper, without any further comment. How could you find fault with that presentation? It’s nothing more than a link to the authors’ own work. Of course, once they’ve been noticed, interesting items go viral and attract all sorts of commentary. One could easily argue that it’d be better for the initial report to be made via a more thorough news story/post where the authors and journal are given the chance to comment before the speculation goes off the chart.

  20. Paul Bracher Says:

    @catalyzer: I tried installing a couple of WordPress plugins that would allow thumbs up/down voting, but they were so poor I uninstalled them within minutes. If anyone has a recommendation for a good one, please let me know. I just haven’t had the time to go hunting for a decent one.

    That said, I spent a lot of time hunting for a good plugin to deal with comment and trackback spam. I settled on a combo of three different plugins, and while not perfect, the cocktail has worked quite well. I’d be happy to share these details with anyone else having problems with WordPress comment spam.

  21. Dr Mike K Says:

    I think that without coverage on blogs like yours such things would most often go unnoticed. Therefore, in my opinion, it is crucial to write about such stories as soon as they emerge (not waiting for a formal investigation to finish – this may never happen and sometimes pressure from the blogosphere is crucial). In a perfect world, PIs guilty of scientific misconduct got fired and/or banned from getting funding, in the real world they sometimes need to be exposed and disgraced informally first.

  22. baah Says:

    Humans make mistakes, sometime you can not ask for forgiveness from the community ,you may never be accepted by the scientific community, yet, it is not the end of the world, learn and be strong.

  23. baby Says:

    Posting part of Drinkel thesis without the permission from the university and try to speculate she fabricated results was too much! You should know that the small discrepancies between the thesis and the paper are easily justified… the author could performed the experimental analysis in a new compound or even in the same one latter and the differences would be possible. Above all, they prove the validity of their work with NMR results. You could be walking in a fine line by posting this type of thing, who knows if Dorta/Drinkel/Univerty/OM are talking to their lawyers? In my opinion, dorta and gang can pledge innocent, as no fraud can be proved in the OM paper (only an intention)… It looks like moral damage, authoral rigths, etc has been commited by Paul….

  24. Chemthulhu Says:

    How often are grant applications rejected because the reviewers believe that the chemistry seems unlikely to work? I know that I have received such comments. Did the grant reviewer go into his/her lab and do the experiments or give literature present for the chemistry not working? No!! The reviewer response was that the chemistry seemed unlikely to work and the grant was not funded. (BTW, the reactions do work :P)

    In this context, I find the whole “standard of evidence” debate that has been going on in the comments of these Dorta posts ridiculous. I think that some of the commenters should lawyers instead of chemists. If you are keeping it real in any way, shape or form you know that “make up” means “fabricate” in this case. Many are acting as if Dorta must be proved innocent beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be condemned by the chemical community. Well, I say that Dorta (or someone in the Dorta lab) seems guilty to me. If this standard of evidence is good enough for the NSF or PRF to reject a grant application, then it is good enough for Dorta to be convicted in the eyes of the chemistry community.

  25. Paul Bracher Says:

    >> Above all, they prove the validity of their work with NMR results. You could be walking in a fine line by posting this type of thing, who knows if Dorta/Drinkel/Univerty/OM are talking to their lawyers?

    @baby: Any of those individuals and organizations are welcome to sue me. The case will be laughed out of court. And there is no need to seek permission for publishing the parts of Drinkel’s thesis that I did. Look up “fair use doctrine”.

  26. eugene Says:

    “Well, I say that Dorta (or someone in the Dorta lab) seems guilty to me. If this standard of evidence is good enough for the NSF or PRF to reject a grant application, then it is good enough for Dorta to be convicted in the eyes of the chemistry community.”

    Naaaaah… I’m chemistry community too and I say no. There is just not enough in it for me. I would need to see more. Like copied and pasted Western blots or Bengu coming in at night and spiking the reactions with product. Right now it doesn’t pass the ‘eugene’ guilty test. I don’t know what exactly I’d need but hey, that’s why I’m a chemist and not a lawyer.

  27. L Says:

    I just read your new post about the peculiar NMR spectra. With the comment from the Editor and the corresponding author its a much more well rounded post and initial report. And your still the first to report, which you of course can be proud of.

    One more question I was wondering about: Did you discover both things, the Dorta paper and these NMRs yourself or did someone else (anonymously?) showed them to you?

  28. The Iron Chemist Says:

    I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of the discrepency between the thesis and the paper. Often, what ends up as the thesis chapter is a rough draft of a paper published after graduation. It’d be reasonable to add experiments, recollect data, and re-interpret data between drafts.

  29. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Am I missing something – I’ve yet to see any evidence that Emma Drinkel is guilty of any wrong doing? You were justified in contacting Professor Dorta but not Dr Drinkel – she is not the corresponding author on the manuscript. Exposing people to the online spotlight is going to cause individuals a lot of stress. As Emma’s mother points out this may cause her difficulty in getting a job in the future. You’re messing around with people’s lives. I’d hope you’d have more regard for the effects of your actions on the individuals involved. If someone were to harm themselves as a result of your blog how would you feel – especially it it were shown afterwards that they were an innocent party?

  30. Chemthulhu Says:

    The Standard of Evidence for “Convicting” Dorta
    (A work of chemical fan fiction by Chemthulhu and inspired by episode 209 of Chappelle’s Show)

    Prosecutor: What would it take to convince you that R. Dorta is guilty?

    Jury Pool Member: I would have to see a video of him typing “Emma, make sure to fabricate the data for this compound. Do not do any experiments. The numbers must be 100% fictional.” He is holding two forms of government ID, a police officer is there to verify the whole thing, four or five of chemistry bloggers including Chembark are there taking notes, and Dorta’s grandma is there to confirm his identity. In the video Dorta’s Grandma must say “That’s my Reto, always making up shit”.

  31. Paul Bracher Says:

    @L: I was first alerted to the Dorta and the Cossy papers by sources who wish to remain anonymous.

    @Anonymous Coward: I would be sad if someone harmed himself because he were mentioned in a blog post, but I would not feel guilty about it. The world of chemistry is not a schoolyard and I am not the playground bully. Science is serious business. I helped bring attention to a paper that the authors *published* by their own volition. I contacted Dr. Drinkel prior to calling attention to the data in her *published* thesis to give her a chance to comment before I wrote the story. When you are an author on a paper, you share responsibility for its content. That is not to say she has committed any misconduct herself. The only conclusion that can be drawn at this stage is that the paper is suspicious and merits further investigation. Obviously, I am not alone in this opinion, as the journal is pursuing the matter further and the story was also reported by organizations like Science and C&EN, which are bona fide science news organizations.

  32. z Says:

    Maybe what rubs some of us the wrong way is that it doesn’t seem like the punishment fits the crime. In this case, one person (probably but not necessarily Dorta) asked someone else to do something that is wrong. And she didn’t end up doing it. There should be consequences for the person who wrote the comment in the SI, but this sounds like it was a one-off kind of thing where they needed to include a compound in the paper and realized oh crap they didn’t characterize it. In the absence of any further evidence, it does not look like an extensive program of fabrication leading to ultimately spurious and invented results. But given the nature of the internet and the kinds of discussion focused on this paper, someone who does a quick Google search for the coauthor on this paper (who may well be completely innocent of any wrongdoing) can easily come away associating her with someone like Bengu Sezen. This is what makes me uncomfortable. And I don’t have an answer for how to report a story like this without inflicting this kind of potentially serious collateral damage on innocent people.

  33. anon Says:

    1) There didn’t seem to be confusion among the author or editor as to what the quote meant, so the “lack of understanding of syntax” argument seems to lack support. Making up data is always a big deal, for reasons repeated ad infinitum (if you lie on things that don’t matter or ask others to do so, what else might you lie about?, without trustworthy data, scientific articles are fantasies with little interest to any one and in most cases with prose good only for inducing sleep, asking students to manipulate data is a dereliction of one’s duty as an advisor). It seems worth a good deal of contempt.

    2) People don’t like partial data and uncertainty – the “innocent until proven guilty” of US gov’t is a direct response to our tendency to make people “guilty until proven innocent”, and the latter tendency tends to make us angry and unreceptive to alternative explanations for the data.

    However, without public questioning of bad data and papers, things will not get changed – even in the presence of it, neither than Sames/Sezen nor LaClair debacles reached just closure. (Columbia closed their processes over Sames for a reason, and it was almost certainly not to improve the process or its output). Particularly when the problems are shown and brought to light without assuming that any particular party is guilty (though in most cases, someone did something or didn’t do something they should have), it is useful to see when something is wrong. It both allows for people to fix the problems shown and to (if necessary) accurately evaluate the dependability of work in the scientific literature. These ends would not be met if corrections were negotiated in secret.

  34. CMcInnes Says:

    I can only throw my own opinion into the fold, even if I don’t necessarily agree with other people’s comments. I know I may not understand other people’s point of view, but I do try.

    My own thoughts on this matter are a pretty mixed bag. On the one hand I feel great sympathy for Emma, and indeed any other innocent caught up in a mess like this, and I’d like to see the truth get out there as quickly as possible so that the entire nasty business gets dealt with. However, on the other hand, I can’t shake the feeling that there is a real problem going on in science at the moment and this type of fraud (which, as far as I can gather, appears to be increasingly common) needs to be dealt with. Science is about knowledge, and muddying the waters with fictitious data does nothing but harm to the entire field.

    Some people may feel like the original story is unfairly sensational in it’s reporting style but the thing that can’t be denied here is that fraud occurred. Even if the facts were the only thing being reported, I for one would be willing to bet that there would still be a real stink kicked up in the community about this. What I think ChemBark did, was to seize the opportunity to put their own opinion in on the story, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Had I read a purely factual story, my initial reaction would have been to ask for the authors opinion.

    This story is sensational, it caused a lot of fuss. OK, but would this have happened if journals and universities were more transparent about how they actually dealt with this type of behaviour? I suspect that the sensationalism of this piece has helped to raise awareness of an insidious problem that needs to be dealt with. It is incredibly unfortunate that innocent people’s careers will be harmed by this but I don’t think that this is the fault of ChemBark. I do think it’s the fault of people who would not employ someone because they were implicated in a story like this (they SHOULD do more digging before making that sort of life altering decision) people commenting on the story further SHOULD treat the named authors as innocent until proven guilty and journals and universities SHOULD be doing more to combat this type of behaviour. The authors must ensure that they are happy with the work being submitted and to submit anything less is just not acceptable.

    But to chastise the author of this piece and tell them that they did something wrong for (as I see it) standing up for the truth and integrity of scientific data, I feel is quite incorrect.

    Of course, I’m only one voice in a crowd.

  35. Anonymous Coward Says:

    @CMcInnes

    “But to chastise the author of this piece and tell them that they did something wrong for (as I see it) standing up for the truth and integrity of scientific data, I feel is quite incorrect.”

    I’m sorry – I wasn’t meaning to chastise him for standing up for the integrity of scientific data – I felt that the way he’d reported the story and particularly contacting Emma when she was not the corresponding author on the paper wasn’t warranted.

    Academic misconduct happens all the time – journals deal with it but some of it slips through and makes it out into publications. However jumping on this and sensationalising it has potentially damaged an individual who looks to me to have done nothing wrong.

    @Paul Bracher

    “I would be sad if someone harmed himself because he were mentioned in a blog post, but I would not feel guilty about it.”

    You’re clearly a young ambitious chemist with a growing on-line reputation for your blog – but I think you’re wrong. I’d really try and avoid collateral damage if I were you. If the worst happened it would haunt you for the rest of your life.

  36. CMcInnes Says:

    @Anonymous Coward

    “Academic misconduct happens all the time – journals deal with it but some of it slips through and makes it out into publications. However jumping on this and sensationalising it has potentially damaged an individual who looks to me to have done nothing wrong.”

    I think the thing that most caught my attention, from this whole scandal, is that there seems to be no repercussions (or at least few repercussions) from academic misconduct (which is a very lovely way of saying fraud) at present. The thing that I really admired about the piece is that by shining a light on this, people are going to have to account for their actions – hopefully journals will take note of this (and indeed other instances like it) and modify how they deal with this whole nefarious type of behaviour.

    As for contacting Emma, if this was a mistake (and I’m not convinced that it was) I can’t say that it’s one that I wouldn’t have made had I been in the author’s position. The natural drive to get everyone’s opinion who is involved in this story (research paper) and give them a right to reply must, surely, be overwhelming. I’d go so far as to say that it showed great journalistic integrity, even if the outcome of this action was less than positive for Emma. I’ll say it more clearly, I think that when the dust settles on this, she will not come out of this as looking like the bad guy (or at least, she’ll look like she was pressured by her PI into doing a bad thing if she did indeed make up data).

    I must agree with you on one point though, if someone resorted to self-harming as a result of any story I broke, I would definitely feel guilty; horrible, even! That’s not to say that I would ignore something like this if I happened to be the one to spot it first! In fact, I can say with great certainty that I would have written the story! That’s not to say that you don’t try to handle the situation with some degree of sensitivity, for example by offering the people involved the space to voice their own opinions on the matter. I still think that this ChemBark piece was warranted and I still applaud the author for the work that went into it.

    Perhaps we can move past this issue soon and start to address the wider issue of how universities and journals handle this sort of behaviour in the first place and indeed, what steps they will take to ensure it doesn’t happen again!

  37. DCX2 Says:

    “The only conclusion that can be drawn at this stage is that the paper is suspicious and merits further investigation.”

    Unfortunately, that is not the conclusion that others are drawing. The Internet has gone into witch hunt mode. Such things happen when you put people’s names in blog posts and accuse them of doing something wrong. Even if the person is later found to be innocent, the damage will be done; nothing disappears from the Internet.

  38. anon Says:

    1) The data exonerating them (if such exists) also doesn’t disappear.

    2) In all of the posts here, you can see the data and decide for yourself. This is different from the rumor mills of old (or now), where claims can be made but the evidence for such can’t be easily represented (even if those discussing it desired to do so).

    3) If there’s a better way to find potential errors and fraud and remove them, please explain. Waiting for journals to do it (without other prodding) is probably unfruitful. (I don’t know what the clearance rate for mistakes brought up to a journal in secret is, but I’ll take a WAG and say not good). If it looks like duplication, falsification, or manipulation, don’t hold your breath waiting for the authors to explain, because they will be in CYA mode. Universities? Do the words “Sames/Sezen” and “Columbia” mean anything? The feds did get to the bottom of it, but it only took five years and resulted in not much to anyone other than cold comfort for the grad students whacked for Sezen’s fraud.

    Clancy novels notwithstanding, errors or fraud are generally not resolved in secret. Covered up or fixed to mitigate the effects to the most powerful participants (or most politically adept participants), yes, but not resolved. The people who would be unfortunate enough to rely on the research usually get screwed and the people who messed up don’t either learn not to make the same mistake again or don’t learn not to commit fraud. If you reward people for cheating or treat ends gained by cheating as identical to those obtained honestly, you’re going to get lots of dishonest results, and eventually copious disrespect for your field and a lack of useful things and jobs there. I’m not sure who that benefits.

  39. r Says:

    Thanks for publication and subsequent comments. After reading the letter by the mother of the researcher, it is not clear whether Dr Drinkel _did_ “make up” the data as requested. If she did, then guilty as charged. If she refused to “make up” the data, she deserves to be exonerated and the attention focussed entirely on Prof Dorta. The flippancy of the request suggests similar previous behaviour.

  40. Totgia Says:

    I think blog or community website is not suitable for judging suspicious data. It is not wise to point out all people mistakes all the time.

  41. Graet Chem Says:

    People do make mistakes, but that’s why you spend time with your colleagues re-drafting papers and scrutinising data as much as possible so that these mistakes can be got rid of before publication. If you haven’t done this properly then that’s your fault and you need to live with that.

    I didn’t spend significant amounts of my time as a PhD student and a post-doc repeating experiments (then repeating them again!), double-checking figures and having to defend my work against my supervisor’s and colleague’s critiques prior to publication so that I can now be all nice and sympathetic to people who appear to have cut corners. I suspect that goes for the majority of scientists on these blogs.

  42. anon Says:

    For the record an editorial review of this case has been published.
    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/om401186q


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