How JACS Treated the Anonymous Tip of the Rodriguez–Marks Paper

November 11th, 2013

ChemBark InvestigatesBy the time the chemist who noticed the suspicious data published in the Rodriguez–Marks paper had contacted ChemBark, the chemist had already anonymously notified the Journal of the American Chemical Society with the concerns. A member of the staff at the journal responded to this initial message with the following:

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for your message regarding J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131 (16), pp 5902–5919. Indeed JACS takes ethics quite seriously. We would be pleased to investigate your concerns. Before proceeding, however, we ask that you reveal your identity.

Sincerely,
(REDACTED)

The implication of the official response from the journal was troubling. It implied that for the investigation to proceed, the whistleblower would need to reveal his/her identity.

Surely a journal that grants anonymity to referees would appreciate why a reader who was calling attention to possible misconduct by a well-known, powerful chemist would want to remain anonymous. Furthermore, JACS is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), and the source reports he reminded the journal that “COPE supports a whistleblower’s right to remain anonymous”. Beyond COPE, Ivan Oransky (co-editor of the blog Retraction Watch) has also summarized why editors shouldn’t ignore anonymous tips.

To its credit, the journal responded favorably to the source’s gentle reminder about COPE’s policy, and the investigation was allowed to proceed.

After the paper in question was retracted, ChemBark asked JACS Editor-in-Chief Peter Stang by e-mail:

When the source initially contacted the journal in August with these concerns, the journal office responded to him/her “We would be pleased to investigate your concerns. Before proceeding, however, we ask that you reveal your identity.”

As you know, the source refused to identify himself/herself and defended his/her right to anonymity in the process. While the journal eventually relented and proceeded with the review, the initial implication was that the source would need to identify himself/herself for an investigation to proceed. Was the request and wording of the initial response from the journal “standard procedure”? Is the journal worried that such a response could have a chilling effect on the identification of suspicious or irreproducible data? Why would the identity of the source matter if the concerns are reasonable?

Dr. Stang’s response included the paragraph:

I will say, however that the request for the individual to identify themselves was unnecessary. The  identity of the “whistleblower” was immaterial to the issues raised and did not  prevent JACS from considering the allegation and taking action. All ACS  Journals take all cases of alleged research improprieties very seriously and have established procedures for reviewing and taking appropriate actions, where warranted, to preserve the integrity of the scientific record. Institutions and funding agencies  also have established departments, policies and procedures for handling  allegations of data fabrication by researchers. Upholding the scientific record requires the vigilance of all participants in the research community.

All credible reports of suspicious data should be thoughtfully considered by the corresponding journal, whether reported anonymously or not. Journals should be grateful to anyone who attempts to correct the scientific record and understanding of why a tipster might want to remain anonymous. While JACS‘s initial response was troubling and “unnecessary”, it would appear as though the editors have taken steps to correct how they handle anonymous tips.

That is an encouraging outcome.


28 Responses to “How JACS Treated the Anonymous Tip of the Rodriguez–Marks Paper”

  1. Hoya Says:

    I must be being very dense and missing the point of why this particular paragraph was taken out of the original response so that it can be made into a new post. At least, to me, it just sounds like the standard response that any moderately intelligent editor would have given in response to save themselves from further embarrassment.

    Reading that paragraph with the original message in its entirety actually raises more concerns instead of being an encouragement. Dr Stang said:

    “All ACS Journals take all cases of alleged research improprieties very seriously and have established procedures for reviewing and taking appropriate actions, where warranted, to preserve the integrity of the scientific record.”

    As I see it the journal has not taken any steps to “preserve” anything other than its own reputation. Assuming that at the time he made this communication he was already well-aware of the specifics concerns that the community raised.

    So… how “seriously” have they taken the problem? Probably very seriously. What “procedures” did they use “for reviewing” the issues? Not very good ones if you ask me, as they seem to have missed what was wrong with the very questionable spectra that they were asked to examine. Did they “take appropriate actions”? In my opinion, no.

    I personally find it more discouraging than encouraging.

  2. Older and Wiser Chem Prof Says:

    Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) returns home after receiving his undergraduate degree in chemistry. At a graduation party thrown by his parents everyone quizzes Benjamin about his plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry (why would anyone do anything else?). A journal editor approaches Benjamin and says, “one word…”. Anticipating his advice Benjamin ventures, “Bimetallic Effects for Enhanced Polar Comonomer Enchainment Selectivity in Catalytic Ethylene Polymerization”? No, says the editor, that is twelve words, the only word you need to know is “Photoshop”. Benjamin leaves with a friend of one of his parents who teaches him a better way to cheat.

  3. Duvane Says:

    While this paragraph from the editor’s email seems to take the correct attitude, I notice that he neglected to directly answer this question: “Was the request and wording of the initial response from the journal “standard procedure”?” Instead, he states that they have procedures. So, was the request (demand, really: “before proceeding…”) for identity standard procedure, or did someone go rogue and not follow procedure? It certainly reads like a canned response, but maybe their procedures actually didn’t directly cover that. And maybe as a result of this, the anonymity of tipsters will be addressed internally at JACS. However, I really don’t see anything in the editor’s response that makes me think that the next anonymous tipster won’t get the exact same request. It’s one thing to say that it was “unnecessary” in this case, and entirely another to say that it won’t happen again in the future.

  4. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Older and Wiser Chem Prof:

    ♫ And here’s to you, Robert Robinson,
    We forged the spectrum ’cause your annulation wouldn’t go,
    whoa whoa whoa… ♫

  5. The physicist says Says:

    … and this is why I don’t submit papers to JACS.

  6. Antimony Says:

    What do you expect from an old guy who will most likely die before he gives up his job as the EIC?

  7. Bob Sacamano Says:

    @PB & OWCP, conclude the lyrics with:

    Where have you gone, Ronald Breslow
    A nation turns its lonely eyes to you (woo, woo, woo)
    What’s that you say, Robert Robinson
    Repeatin’ Ron has left and gone away
    (hey, hey, hey…hey, hey, hey)

  8. Older and Wiser Chem Prof Says:

    Hello ACS, my old friend
    I’ve come to blow a whistle again
    Because an image softly creeping
    Left its seeds while I was sleeping
    And the ‘shoop that was planted in my brain
    Still remains
    Within the sound of silence

    In restless dreams I walked alone
    Chop Sticks of nano rods
    ‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
    I turned my lab coat to the cold and damp
    When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
    That split the night
    And touched the sound of silence

    And in the naked light I saw
    Ten thousand citations, maybe more
    People talking without speaking
    People hearing without listening
    People publishing NMRs that were never real
    And no one dared
    Disturb the sound of silence

    “Fools”, said I, “You do not know
    Bad science like a cancer grows
    Hear my words that I might teach you
    Take my arms that I might reach you”
    But my words, like silent disappointment fell
    And echoed
    In the wells of silence

    And the people bowed and prayed
    To the EIC they made
    And the sign flashed out its warning
    In the words that it was forming
    And the sign said, “The words of the editorial board are written on the bathroom stalls
    And open access tenement halls
    And whispered in the sounds of silence

  9. Chemist Says:

    When is the story about this retracted paper going to appear on C&EN news? When Dorta added that “make up the elemental for this compound” note in an SI, it appeared in two stories on C&EN. This in my opinion is even more serious.

  10. Chemist Says:

    I meant this Rodriguez-Marks fraud is even more serious in that there is actual evidence of made up spectra, etc. Lots of evidence. Otherwise it is equally wrong as any other method of fraud.

  11. Paul Bracher Says:

    @OWCP: Excellent.

    Your work reminds me of the time in grad school I wrote and recorded a song parody about Sames & Sezen titled “Data Fabrication” that was set to the tune of “Californication” by Red Hot Chili Peppers. I never had the courage to post it to the blog.

  12. Older and Wiser Chem Prof Says:

    This may be an instance in which a close look at the dissertation (which is a document that should be on public display) is in order. I agree that actual fabrication of spectral images and other display items, if that in fact happened here, makes this really egregious.

  13. Older and Wiser Chem Prof Says:

    @Paul:

    I picked “Older and Wiser” not as a statement about myself relative to others, but as a statement about myself now vs. myself then. When I was an assistant professor I drank the Kool-Aide. I know better now, having seen maybe not everything, but enough. I salute you for your integrity and your youth.

    I couldn’t resist the Sounds of Silence (it is in the soundtrack of The Graduate). 40 years ago you could tell an immediate college graduate to go into “plastics” and no one could fault your advice. Chemistry as a discipline is living in the past and has not gotten on board for the most part with the urgent societal needs we face, not when it takes 20 overworked, underpaid, and ultimately under-employed Ph.D. students to get the next ACS Award (and I see my wall is not bare). Keep up the good work.

  14. The Clare Francis problem Says:

    Paul, I’d be interested to hear what you think of “Clare Francis”: see, for example, http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/37482/title/What-to-Do-About–Clare-Francis-/

  15. bad wolf Says:

    “Sarr spoke with the paper’s authors and read both manuscripts carefully. …The experience frustrated him. It took Sarr several hours to investigate the claim… In an e-mail exchange with Francis, Sarr alleged that she had wasted his time.”

    Wow, expecting a journal editor to read manuscripts carefully now considered “wasting” his time. How many anonymous tips are they getting?

  16. Chemjobber Says:

    ‘Twould be rather funny if “Clare Francis” was a lot of people, sort of like the Dread Pirate Roberts.

  17. Older and Wiser Chem Prof Says:

    Chemistry needs a Dread Pirate Roberts to counter the Rodents of Unusual Size.

  18. Paul Bracher Says:

    Regarding “Clare Francis”, I don’t see her actions as much of a “problem”. Journals should be grateful to receive credible tips about problems with papers in their journals—whether they are from known or anonymous sources, serial or one-off tipsters. Removing bad papers improves the quality of a journal’s product and brand.

    I wonder whether Francis has access to one of those anti-plagiarism programs. I think the world of science is going to see a lot of duplicate and plagiarized papers fall to the ground when old issues of journals are probed using this software.

  19. Neuroskeptic Says:

    What to do about Clare Francis? A dilemma… give her one medal or two?

  20. Graet Chem Says:

    It is a shame that the individual at JACS tasked with dealing with whistleblowing tips was not aware of the statements by COPE of which it is a member. I think JACS need to start training their assitants/subs properly.

  21. The Clare Francis problem Says:

    I think the main concern is about his/her low ‘positive predictive value’/lack of due diligence – if you raise concerns about three papers at a single journal each year, one of which turns out to be fraud, that’s not a bad track record. But what if it’s more like 1/10 or 1/20?

    Anonymity makes it a lot easier to highlight ‘problematic’ papers without any consequences for being wrong…

  22. Umbisam Says:

    @Older and Wiser Chem: Never mind that wall of awards. Some of us do work on problems of societal interest, but we’re cloistered in the walls of industry. Chemistry isn’t just the world of academics. There’s a heck of a lot going on in the world of trade secrets. And people don’t even need Ph.D’s to be allowed to do research, but then seeing that people who fabricate data get Ph.D.’s which ultimately lead to employment at a publicly traded company, one might question why anyone should need to hire a Ph.D. Obviously, if your work was fraudulent, then you don’t really have the full experience of truly overcoming problems. But if a company such as Dupont is perfectly happy with the work of someone who didn’t really do grad school, then why don’t they just only hire people who don’t complete grad school. It would be cheaper. I am still a supporter of doctorates and do encourage my company to hire CHEMISTS with good credentials, but I think it’s worth making the point that academics need to stop diluting our worth with people who commit fraud or just don’t really do anything during their 5 years of grad school. Otherwise, why should I hire someone with a Ph.D.? Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that someone who had done a real Ph.D. should have learned valuable analytical and critical thinking skills (there are other valuable assets which I won’t go into). We have people with no college degree being very productive in the lab and ascending the hierarchy. It’s interesting to contrast these individuals with someone who has what I would call a fake Ph.D. (photo-shopped data) and a well-paid position at a well-known company.

  23. anonymous coward Says:

    TCFP: it probably depends on the cost of being wrong – if authors or journals pay a significant price for false accusations of fraud, then the tolerance level for and credibility of anonymous accusations will be correspondingly low. If the cost is low (the accusation is submitted quietly first to the journal and they can do a sanity check to validate or deny the accusation with little work), then signal to noise can be pretty low and still be worth it, since the cost of publishing a fraudulent paper to the journal ought to be much greater than the cost of checking the accusation.

    I think these posts change what is a generalized cost of bad research to chemistry (unease with the truthfulness of results, waste of time by concerned people in reproducing them) into a much more concentrated cost to journals who publish it and to the authors who write it. I don’t think either a more open and fair system of dealing with potentially fraudulent research or even a greater level of concern for chemists as a whole and not just authors would be possible if the costs of dealing with potential fraud remain distributed among chemists or scientists as a whole.

  24. Older and Wiser Chem Prof Says:

    I think the issue with the ACS journals is one of maintaining the appearance of being above reproach. I imagined that the timing of the chopstick nanorod flare up (plus some other stuff in Europe) was uncomfortably close to the process leading to the Nobels, and the Nano editorial board was trying to cut down on the distracting elements of falsification and non reproducibility. To much of this sort of thing and the funding and accolades will run elsewhere. Maybe more Nobel Prizes for the interface with medicine.

  25. Anonchem Says:

    It seems that ACS is trying to move the problem from data fraud to whom denunce it (blogger or whistleblower chemists). Science is the investigation of the truth not a 5th grade class where scientist can scream “I’m the best because I have the highest H-Index”.

    Shame on ACS

  26. justme Says:

    if they publish bad spectra or things that are honestly in question and to be honest any one who knows chem can usually tell
    if something is not ups to spec, they should employ an independant lab to test the findings and redo the the analysis.

    come one dont protect these arse holes they charge for print charges that don’t exist since the web.
    there money making elsivia boot licking dictators.

    you work hard and publish they charge for your info simple. some service. well the least they could do is
    check all findings to be honest. they should release there own tests for everything then they can honestly ask
    you the $30 a paper.

    the id crap is just the big brother disease. anyone in power now thinks they have to guide the flock with a big stick.

    total power corrupts totally

  27. justme Says:

    not sure were to put this sorry its off topic maby you can make a thread for it.

    I have noticed that journal of organic chemistry is missing all entries for volume 4 issue 1.
    It only has the title page on the online search database yet when I go to my copy of the collection there
    are quite a few entries in this issue.

    not sure why but something else to add to the journal bashing :)

  28. o_0 Says:

    Out today….how many papers reference ‘an anonymous source’

    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/om401131m

    Keep up the good work all


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