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:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: 15 August 2013 21:04
To: Fredrik von Kieseritzky ‘email@example.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,
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.