Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

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

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After the paper in question was retracted, ChemBark asked JACS Editor-in-Chief Peter Stang by e-mail: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

Suspicious Data in a JACS Paper from 2009

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Covers of JACSOn Tuesday, the Journal of the American Chemical Society published a retraction notice for a paper titled “Bimetallic Effects for Enhanced Polar Comonomer Enchainment Selectivity in Catalytic Ethylene Polymerization” by Brandon A. Rodriguez, Massimiliano Delferro, and Tobin J. Marks (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131, 5902−5919).

The retraction notice reads:

The authors have been unable to reproduce the synthesis and spectroscopic characterization of the ethylene/acrylate copolymer described in this article. Accordingly, the authors are retracting this publication due to concerns over the validity of the aforementioned data. The authors regret any confusion that may have been created by publication of this work.

A casual reader might encounter this notice and think this is exactly how the system should work: a scientist told of a problem with his published procedure went back, attempted to repeat the work, found he couldn’t, and published a notice to inform the community.

But a closer inspection reveals that there is more to this story that the retraction notice would indicate.

ChemBark was alerted to problems with this paper in August by an astute chemist who wishes to remain anonymous. One day earlier, the source had contacted Peter Stang, the editor-in-chief of JACS, to alert the journal to abnormalities with data in the paper. ChemBark respected the wishes of the source and allowed a traditional editorial review of the paper to be completed before reporting the matter on the blog. With the publication of the retraction notice yesterday, the authors have publicized that their work is problematic. It would appear that an initial review of the paper is complete.

The authors’ wording of the retraction does not indicate specifically what was wrong with the paper, but a brief inspection of the data (including those in the Supporting Information) reveals the following abnormalities:

Figure 3: The baselines of these spectra are peculiar in that they are thick but very straight. The thicknesses and shapes of the peaks are also peculiar. Some of the tall peaks lack the wide bases you would expect of them. Finally, some of the peaks appear to have a different background (i.e., noise) and line thickness (as if they originated from a different source).

marks_retraction_figure_3

Figure 6: The baselines (i.e., noise) of the two NMR spectra appear to be identical. The peaks look irregular—like solid lines.

Figure 7: Again, some of the peaks have lines that are much thicker than the rest of the spectrum. They look unnatural.

Figure S19 (in the SI): The NMR spectra taken at various temperatures have identical noise in their baselines, which would be very, very unusual. The peaks of interest appear irregular and have different line shapes.

marks_retraction_figure_s19

Figure S21: The background of the peaks appears different from the background of the rest of the spectrum, as if the peaks were cut-and-pasted into the spectrum.

Figure S22: Same as above. The spectrum in Figure S21 and the bottom spectrum of Figure S22 appear to have the same baseline noise even though these spectra are reported to be of two entirely different compounds.

marks_retraction_figure_s22

That’s not everything that looks peculiar, but do not simply take my word for it. Go to the paper, have a look, and judge for yourself (paper, SI). ChemBark does not know why these data look the way they do, but they do look unnatural.

On Tuesday, ChemBark contacted Professors Tobin Marks (the corresponding author on the retracted paper) and Peter Stang (the Editor-in-Chief of JACS) by e-mail for comment.

A response was received on Wednesday from Alan K. Cubbage, the chief communications officer for Northwestern University. In the interest of fairness, we are reporting this e-mail its entirety:

Mr. Bracher, your inquiry to a Northwestern University professor, Tobin Marks, was referred to me, as I am the chief communications officer for Northwestern.

As you note in your email, two Northwestern University faculty members and a former Ph.D. student have retracted a publication that appeared several years ago in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The authors are Brandon A. Rodriguez, who received a Ph.D. from Northwestern in 2009, Tobin Marks, a professor of chemistry, and Massimiliano Delferro, a research assistant professor of chemistry. The article was retracted because the authors were unable to reproduce a portion of the data described in the article.

Northwestern University has established processes and procedures for reviewing issues relating to research integrity.  If concerns were to be raised regarding the data that was the subject of the retraction, the University would use those procedures in its review.  Part of those procedures, which follow the steps mandated by the federal government, is that any review remains confidential.

Thank you for your interest in Northwestern.

Best wishes,

Alan Cubbage

ChemBark also received an e-mail response from Peter J. Stang, the Editor-in-Chief of JACS. In addition to asking about the possibility of fabrication and the specific concerns listed above, we asked for his thoughts on Paul Weiss’s recent editorial in ACS Nano. Dr. Stang’s message is also copied below in its entirety, with the exception of one paragraph (that will be communicated in the next post on the blog, a follow-up to this story):

Dear Dr. Bracher:

Thank you for your communication regarding  Bimetallic Effects for Enhanced Polar Comonomer Enchainment Selectivity in Catalytic Ethylene Polymerization   authored by Brandon A. Rodriguez, Massimiliano Delferro, and Tobin J. Marks [http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/ja900257k] that has been retracted {10.1021/ja409590r] from the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).

As you know, concerns with this paper were brought to my attention in late August by an anonymous source.  Apparently this source also communicated the same concerns to you.  I am disappointed that you felt obligated to  not communicate these concerns  to JACS directly  at that time and deferred to your source to do so. Please know that JACS takes all allegations regarding the validity of  data reported in published articles very seriously.

These concerns were shared with the author and a  thorough editorial review of the article and accompanying information was conducted by JACS. The authors have retracted the article – it would not be proper to speculate on some of the questions you have posed.

(Omitted paragraph — to be discussed in next post)

ACS and its Editors adhere to the principle that the observance and practice of high ethical standards is vital to the entire scientific enterprise.  Toward that end, guidelines for a course of conduct by those engaged in the publication of chemical research, specifically, editors, authors, and manuscript reviewers are set forth in ACS Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research -http://pubs.acs.org/userimages/ContentEditor/1218054468605/ethics.pdf.

ACS Publications  is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). ACS Editors adhere to  a process established by COPE to review suspicious/fabricated data -http://publicationethics.org/files/u7140/Flowchart%20Fabricated%20B%20revised.pdf

With regard to the editorial in ACS Nano, I believe that it is well-reasoned and articulated. Public speculation and  finger-pointing before all of the facts are gathered, assessed and decided upon is, in my opinion, counterproductive.  A confidential rigorous review of allegations based on the COPE  prescribed process is the best means to determine an appropriate action in response to those allegations.  As you know, outcomes of these reviews may very well have a lasting impact on the researcher(s) involved and we need to let the facts dictate those outcomes.

Thank you for advising that ChemBark will post a story on the retractionhttp://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ja409590r. I offer my assistance in reviewing a draft and through cc have alerted  Dr. Tobin, the corresponding author.

Peter J. Stang

 

ChemBark could not locate an e-mail address for Dr. Brandon Rodriguez, the first author on the paper, but did send him a message seeking comment through Facebook. We received no reply. We will publish any comments from Dr. Rodriguez as soon as possible after they are received, and we note that he (and everyone) is welcome to post comments in the discussion thread below. We also note that the community owes a debt of gratitude to the chemist who brought these concerns to light in a professional and considerate manner.

So…here we have a case where a suspicious paper from a very high-profile group was allowed to go through the “traditional” private review process espoused by scientists like the editor-in-chief of ACS Nano rather than public review on a blog. ChemBark did nothing to interfere with the investigation or the actions of the editors at JACS.

Is this how the system should work?

 

Editor’s Notes: Neither Dr. Stang nor anyone at Northwestern were allowed to view an early draft of this story. The spectra used to construct the images above were taken from figures in J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131, 5902−5919 (paper, SI). The next post on ChemBark will deal with how the journal handled a specific aspect of this review.

Response to ACS Nano Editorial on Reporting Misconduct

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

ChemBark's Jackie Jaws, the Jaded JACS RefereeYesterday, the entire editorial board of ACS Nano published an editorial on how scientific misconduct should be reported and dealt with. The piece took square aim at chemistry blogs, and I’ve decided to publish my thoughts as an open letter to Paul Weiss, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal:

Dear Professor Weiss,

Yesterday, I read your editorial titled “Be Critical but Fair”, within which you and the other editors of ACS Nano outline an official policy that calls on those who discover suspicious data to report their findings directly to the journal (where they can be scrutinized privately) as opposed to blogs and social media (where the findings will be scrutinized in the open). It is with candid disdain that I write this (public) blog post to explain why I believe your policy is misguided, and ultimately, damaging to the institution it seeks to protect.

Before going further, I want to thank you for the job that you and the rest of the board perform as editors. You are the primary stewards of the chemical literature, and the gravity of this responsibility is immeasurable. I imagine there are times when the extra salary you receive as editors does not adequately compensate you for the hassles of the job. I have no taste for this stress, but I am glad there are scientists among us willing to step up to the plate. Thank you for your service.

It is because of the immense responsibility of your job as a steward of the chemical literature that the community has an interest in analyzing your actions and holding you accountable for them. Everyone makes mistakes—from lowly chemistry bloggers to exalted editors-in-chief of ACS journals—but the true tragedy of any mistake is when we fail to learn from it. Recently, the process of peer review at your journal failed in a most spectacular manner. Similar high-profile cases recently occurred at your sister journals (e.g., Nano Letters and Organic Letters), and these cases of suspected misconduct are slowly working their way through the process of editorial review.

One common vein to this recent rash of suspicious papers is that they were brought to light on chemistry blogs. As you may already know, I am the editor of one of these blogs, ChemBark. I read with particular interest the comments you directed at those who discuss misconduct on blogs and Twitter:

In science, we face a similar problem: the numbers of blogs, twitter messages, etc. in which individuals accuse others of academic fraud are steadily rising. Although one might think that this trend is generally beneficial for the purity of science, there are also obvious risks involved. Thus, in this Editorial, we outline some general behavior guidelines that we believe should be followed in such cases. In general, we need to respect our law, in dubio pro reo, which tells us not to condemn anyone before wrongdoing has been proven. It is easy to tweet a message like “X committed fraud and manipulated data”, but how do we know that this is, in fact, true, and that instead, it was perhaps person Y who sent the tweet who just wanted to damage an unwanted competitor? We are convinced that it is important to “clean” the scientific literature from manipulated data, incorrect statements, plagiarism, etc. However, when these issues arise, they need to be investigated with good scientific conduct. In other words, be critical but fair.

The implication of your last statement is that the coverage of scientific misconduct by ChemBark was unfair, and I take great offense to this postulate. I use this word because you have not cited a single shred of specific evidence in support of your statement. When has a chemistry blogger ever raised serious suspicions about the validity of data in a paper only to be later proven incorrect? If a researcher submitted a manuscript to ACS Nano that did not include even one specific piece of data in support of his conclusions, the journal would reject the manuscript immediately. It is a shame that the editors do not hold their own writing to a similar standard.

You said on Twitter that the journal has a policy never to cite blogs or tweets, as if this represents a valid defense of why you couldn’t provide specific facts in support of your ideas. First, your tweet was absolute rubbish. Stuart Cantrill, chief editor of Nature Chemistry, immediately pointed out you wrote a previous editorial that cited the Retraction Watch blog. Second, why on Earth would you have a blanket policy not to cite blogs or tweets? Is ACS Nano so recalcitrant to changes in the publishing industry that it feels ideas voiced online can be ignored or reapportioned in print without credit? I hope not.

The true reason that your editorial did not cite a single instance of a blogger’s leveling false accusations of scientific misconduct in chemistry is that no such instance exists. To imply otherwise is dishonest sophistry that does not befit the editors of a major chemistry journal. In the very rare instances where commenters make weak accusations in the discussion thread of a blog post, the comments are ignored or ridiculed. Despite the fact that the majority of popular chemistry blogs serve as places for civil and thoughtful analysis, your editorial treats blogs as shady underground operations where anonymous bloggers are free to wreak havoc on innocent scientists. Again, I challenge you to find one anonymous chemistry blogger who has broken a story of possible misconduct. I use my real name on ChemBark, and Mitch Garcia blogs under his real name at Chemistry-Blog. Your editorial could have easily cited our work in reporting suspicious papers, but of course, doing so would not have fed into your desired narrative.

Returning to your statement above, you note that “we need to respect our law, in dubio pro reo, which tells us not to condemn anyone before wrongdoing has been proven.” First off, your translation isn’t even correct. A more accurate translation is “when in doubt, favor the accused.” This tenet is why our legal system requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”, and the idea has nothing to do with trying cases in public versus private. The fact that you drew on our legal system—which is famous for holding trials that are televised or open to members of the public—to support your policy is ridiculous.

While bloggers who report cases of possible misconduct are indeed accountable to the law, that law is not “in dubio pro reo”. Rather, bloggers are accountable to defamation law. If any chemistry blogger were to raise baseless accusations of misconduct against a scientist, the blogger would open himself to (i) financial ruin from an adverse finding in a civil claim, and (ii) professional ruin in the court of community opinion. Bloggers need to be careful about what papers they choose to highlight regarding scientific misconduct, but this is no different from how newspapers and magazines need to be careful about how they handle their coverage of crime in everyday life. Do we want newspapers to abstain from reporting major crimes until a trial by jury has concluded? No, that’s crazy. There is a public interest served in covering these stories, and news outlets play a valuable role in gathering, distilling, and reporting this information. As both a chemistry blogger and a human being, I need to make sure that the facts I report regarding possible scientific misconduct are accurate and the opinions I voice are rooted in reason. That’s the bottom line, and I am accountable to the very intelligent readership of the blog and to our legal system (should someone have a problem with my coverage). No blogger can expect to level spurious claims of misconduct and get away with it.

Your editorial continues with a statement that peer review is “the best way to avoid potential academic fraud” and correctly notes that the system sometimes fails. When it does, you implore readers who find evidence of misconduct to report it directly to you so you can conduct an investigation in private. You note:

The difference between this formalized accusation investigation and reports in blogs or on Twitter is that, during the investigation, the authors of the article under dispute have a fair chance to explain, and the decisions are made by known experts in the field. After we have made our decision, all are welcome to comment on it in any blog, even if they have different opinions; this is their privilege. We strongly suggest that such comments be made without the cloak of anonymity, using real names and affiliations, so that direct and open discussion of the work can be understood by others.

I hope you can appreciate the irony of how you begin by extolling the virtues of (anonymous) peer review and conclude by haranguing bloggers and commenters to register their opinions “without the cloak of anonymity.” It takes a lot of gall to make those statements in the same line of thought.

Furthermore, the idea that the public should not be free to point out deficiencies of a (publicly) published paper without first receiving clearance from the editorial board of ACS Nano is preposterous. The notion is antithetical to the freedom of inquiry espoused by the academic community and the freedom of speech held sacred by American society. Unless I am mistaken, the “A” in ACS Nano stands for American. In America, it is not a “privilege” to comment publicly on a subject; it is a right.

Your assertion that commenting on papers is a “privilege” smacks of the elitist, opaque, closed-door, Old-Boys’-Club approach that many lament has become standard operating procedure in too many areas of chemistry. Many young chemists decry that success in our field is not so much about what you do, but whom you know. Blogs are helping to level the playing field by putting users on equal terms and democratizing the flow of information. In order for any self-governing and self-policing body to operate effectively, members of the community must stay informed about important issues they face. There can be nothing more important to chemistry than the integrity of our data; it is the foundation on which our knowledge is built. Private systems of dealing with misconduct do so in a darkness where—even if an investigation takes place on the level—those outside will always have their doubts. The open system afforded by blogs shines a light on problems so all can see, participate, and judge for themselves. While private peer review of papers may make sense to eliminate errors before they’ve been published, once a paper is out in the open, it should be fair game for comment. There is no point in dragging problems back inside only to leave a trail of blood and a multitude of questions behind.

I would like to think that the private system you espouse could also function efficiently, but recent history has proven otherwise. Despite the importance of maintaining the integrity of the scientific record, the chemical community has been routinely kept in the dark about cases of scientific misconduct. Journals, universities, and governments seem to share as little as possible about their investigations. Just look what happened with the Sezen–Sames retractions. The case involved a shocking rampage of deceit and was probably the worst scandal to hit organic chemistry of all-time, but it took a FOIA request from me and C&EN to release the details of the case to the community. How can chemists be expected to learn from and prevent scandals without knowing any of the specific details? It’s ridiculous! Do you pledge to release all of the specific details of your investigations that result in adverse findings against an author?

Journalism—including that provided on chemistry blogs—is one way to address this vacuum of information. The Founding Fathers of the United States protected the freedom of the press in our Bill of Rights because they knew that an informed electorate was essential to the efficient operation of our government and the prevention of tyranny. A (small) part of what I’ve tried to do with ChemBark is to shed light on cases of scientific misconduct in our field such that these cases can be discussed and analyzed by the wider chemical community. It is unfortunate that there exists a need for bloggers to invest some of their time in this effort, but experience has repeatedly shown that chemists cannot rely alone on journals, universities, and governments to keep them informed.

Regardless of how persistent you are in your attempt to intimidate the blog community into keeping silent, bloggers will continue raising these issues. The health of our science is at stake, and the importance of its protection far exceeds the cost of however you and your colleagues decide to punish us for openly analyzing important issues in our field.

In summary, I believe your editorial is unfair and completely misguided. I am dismayed that it represents not only your personal opinion, but the professional opinion of every member of your editorial board (who signed it). You all have perverted an embarrassing, spectacular failure of peer review at your journal into a condemnation of the community that exposed and prevented the proliferation of your error. Chemists should be outraged at your editorial, and I hope they see through this shameless attack on those of us who use blogs and social media to analyze articles rather than the traditional method of grumbling in solitude. In the future, I suggest your effort will be better spent listening to the constructive feedback bloggers and their readers provide rather than attacking them for conducting their analysis in a public forum. Finally, on Twitter yesterday, you mentioned a willingness to engage further in a discussion of the merits of open vs. closed review of problematic published papers. I do not hold grudges and would be happy to participate in whatever forum you deem appropriate. Please keep me informed if you remain interested in hosting such a symposium.

Yours in chemistry,
Paul

Chemistry World and Others on Dodgy Data

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

ed_baseballcap_150Hello, friends. Pardon the radio silence of late. My first semester of teaching just started at SLU and my head is already spinning. I’ll have a full post on that subject soon, but I wanted to weigh in on a few recent pieces regarding the cases of suspicious data that were reported here and elsewhere.

Reporter Patrick Walter wrote a story earlier this week for Chemistry World that examined whether blogs are appropriate venues for policing the chemical literature for misconduct. I was interviewed for—and quoted in—the story, which I feel is thorough, is balanced, and represented my positions accurately. As you might imagine, I argue that blogs are indeed appropriate venues to report suspicious data and to analyze how the community should respond to misconduct.

There are plenty of people who disagree with me—to varying extents—and the article raises their concerns as well. That is fantastic, because this is a discussion that we need to have. I am happy to engage in thoughtful debate on the subject (see posts here and here) in hopes that we, as a community, can arrive at a more efficient system for removing manipulated data from the literature and preventing their publication in the future.

Mitch André Garcia, who runs both Chemistry-Blog and the chemistry subgroup of Reddit, is one of the people who took exception to my post on the manipulated spectra in Organic Letters. Here is what he wrote on Twitter:

I’m left scratching my head here. How do the nanochopsticks he reported qualify as “acceptable to cover” for being “egregiously manipulated and…in a high impact journal” but not the erased impurities in the Anxionnat/Cossy spectra reported here? Seems pretty hypocritical. And if we can’t agree on whether these cases meet his standard for “egregiously manipulated” and “high impact”, how are we supposed to agree on anything?

My view on the matter is that anyone who wants to raise concerns publicly about data may do so, with the full realization that they are putting themselves on the line. If I raise concerns about the integrity of data in a paper, I am accountable to defamation law and the high intelligence and ethical standards of the readership here. I can only bring information to people’s attention. If that information is wrong or doesn’t support my opinions, I will be excoriated in the comments and lose credibility. If what I publish is defamatory, I will probably also be sued. The root cause of the outrage among chemists about these papers cannot be attributed to blogs; the data speak for themselves.

A few days ago, John at the blog It’s the Rheo Thing posted some cautionary advice to “activist [bloggers] that are confronting examples of fraud, plagiarism and other publishing infractions in the technical literature”:

What goes around, comes around. Many are pleased to bring the axe down hard on someone’s head, and hold as many people responsible as possible (from ALL the authors to the principal investigator and maybe even beyond that), but we need to keep in mind that publishing scientific research is a human effort and as such, will be imperfect at times even when no harm, deceit or other nefarious activity is intended. Many of the commentators screaming for blood are young professionals you have yet to run a large, established research group, but who think that they will be able to do so flawlessly in the future. Of course that won’t happen. You will have failings and shortcomings and things will go wrong despite your most fervent intent to prevent it. Most people do not have a problem with that.

Most people. But there will be plenty of others wanting your head on the same chopping block and with an added level of glee since you were responsible for bringing so many down yourself. It’s human nature. We can’t change it, this perverse desire to bring down the people bringing down others. Worse yet, these efforts to trap you may be entirely without merit. That won’t matter. “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” (Mark Twain). Your name and reputation can be placed in the same trash heap as those truly deserving it far more easily than you can ever imagine. Despite your noble intents and purity of heart.

User “juicebokz” on Reddit called John’s post “a letter to ChemBark”, and I feel compelled to weigh in with the following points:

Do you seriously think that the responsibilities of running a modestly popular blog don’t weigh on me? Do you think that I don’t consider whether I am treating the subjects of these sorts of posts fairly? These posts are not aimed at destroying scientists; they are aimed at protecting science. I do not take joy in the downfall of others, but I am not going to let a miscreant’s potential downfall prevent me from discussing a topic that I feel is important. Should any researchers be “brought down” for data fabrication, I will not be the person responsible for bringing them down. They will have been the people responsible for their own downfall.

And I am by no means a perfect person. Everyone makes mistakes and does things of which they are not proud. The point is that you have to pay for your mistakes, then dust yourself off and go about living a productive life. Should anyone gather the motivation to search through my past, or present, they’re going to find stuff that will embarrass me…but they are not going to find any fabrication of data.

As for drawing attention to co-authors who very likely did not actively participate in the fabrication of data, I still stand by the position that authors must share the responsibility for the content of their papers. “Share” does not mean “share equally”, but all authors should at least read through their papers and keep an eye out for things that are obviously wrong. When you are a corresponding author, ensuring the integrity of the data in your papers must be one of your priorities. If you think I’m alone in this view, please go back and read Smith’s editorial in Organic Letters. Any punishment doled out regarding fabricated data in a paper should be proportional to (i) one’s active involvement in the fabrication and (ii) one’s responsibilities as a conscientious scientist and/or manager. These responsibilities should be the subject of more discussion among chemists.

Finally, does anyone really think I am helping my career by reporting on scientific misconduct? Do you have any idea how uncomfortable it is to send e-mails to the editor-in-chief of a high-impact journal in my field asking for comment about how he’s going to deal with manipulated data in a paper written by one of his associate editors? Was it lost on people that Smith’s response to my inquiry was addressed “Dear Bracher”? It’s certainly not the most cordial of salutations. I asked a follow-up question by e-mail and was not given the courtesy of a reply.

I don’t like these sorts of awkward interactions, but asking hard questions is part of doing a thorough job of reporting, so I’ll just bite the bullet. I can only hope these interactions don’t come back to hurt me down the road, but that’s a possibility. At the end of the day, I would love not to have to write about scientific misconduct because (i) chemists have stopped doing it or (ii) universities, journals, and government have created a good system for dealing with it.

Now, how do we make that happen?

Some Very Peculiar NMR Spectra in Organic Letters

Monday, August 19th, 2013

A close examination of the Supporting Information attached to this paper from 2011 in Organic Letters reveals some pretty interesting NMR spectra:

compound_5d_hnmr_zoom

(compound 5dfull spectrum)

Hmmmmm. I have collected hundreds of NMR spectra, and I can’t ever recall seeing a spectrum in which intensity was not a reasonably continuous function of chemical shift. That is, values of chemical shifts had only one associated intensity each, and no spectra had missing chunks of signal.

Here are some other interesting pieces of spectra from the same paper:

compound3j_hnmr_zoom(compound 3jfull 1H NMR spectrum)

 

compound3j_cnmr_zoom(compound 3jfull 13C NMR spectrum)

 

compound_7c_zoom  (compound 7cfull spectrum)

-

You can check out all of the spectra in the SI for yourself—the file is open access.

So, what is going on here? One explanation is that we’re seeing something very scientifically interesting. I hope this is the case. Another explanation could be user error, or a malfunction on the part of the instrument and/or software used to collect and analyze the data.

Yet another explanation could be that unexpected or undesired peaks (e.g., those corresponding to impurities in the samples) have been erased from the spectra. Some of you might think this suggestion is outlandish—why would a chemical researcher manipulate spectral data in this regard?—but I cannot take credit for conceiving of this idea. I believe the first time I was alerted to this (highly unethical) practice was by the Editor-in-Chief of the journal in which this work appears.

Organic chemists and readers of this blog will recall that earlier this summer, Amos B. Smith III—the Editor-in-Chief of Organic Letters—penned an editorial documenting that he hired a data analyst to examine spectra and other data submitted to the journal for possible manipulation. The editorial included the statement:

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

I wish to reiterate that I have no definitive idea of what happened in the production of the spectra in this paper; this post only notes that they don’t look normal. In an effort to ascertain more about the spectra, five days ago, I reached out by e-mail to the first author, corresponding author, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal.

Dr. Bruno Anxionnat, the first author of the paper, did not respond. His former PI and the corresponding author on the paper, Professor Janine Cossy, replied with the following statement:

Dear Professor Bracker

There is probably a mistake as I know that the 1st supporting information with some spectra were wrong and I asked an other student to reproduce the experiments and sent back an other SI with the right spectra, may be the 1st SI was not changed by the right one.

Right now, I am abroad and can not check but I am going to check with the Organic Letters editorial office and I will tell theñm to contact you

Sincerely yours
Janine Cossy

I will note that Professor Cossy is an Associate Editor of the journal in addition to being corresponding author on the paper. You may recall that Smith’s editorial in Org. Lett. addressed the responsibilities of corresponding authors quite clearly:

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

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

In my e-mail to Professor Smith seeking comment, I made sure to mention his recent editorial. He sent back the following note:

Dear Bracher,

Thank you for bringing these discrepancies to my attention. As with any allegation concerning published articles, we have shared your concerns with the author, who is as you note an Associate Editor. Organic Letters has standard procedures for handling inquiries regarding the content reported in published articles, which are in play here.  As you may be aware, COPE (http://publicationethics.org/) provides  journal editors and publishers with guidelines for handling such issues.  Speculation and comment are premature at this time.

ACS and ACS Editors hold the conviction that the observance of high ethical standards is vital to  the entire scientific enterprise. Guidelines for a course of conduct by  those engaged in the publication of chemical research, specifically, editors, authors, and manuscript reviewers are set forth in ACS Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research http://pubs.acs.org/userimages/ContentEditor/1218054468605/ethics.pdf.

Amos Smith

So, there you have it. The matter is being examined more closely, and it would appear the ball is in Organic Letters’ court. Interestingly, there are a few more papers (listing Anxionnat as first author and Cossy as corresponding author) where you might notice similar-looking spectra:

Anxionnat, B.; Pardo, D.G.; Ricci, G.; Cossy, J. Eur. J. Org. Chem. 2012, 4453–4456. (paper, SI)

Anxionnat, B.; Robert, B.; George, P.; Ricci, G.; Perrin, M.-A.; Pardo, D.G.; Janine Cossy. J. Org. Chem. 2012, 77, 6087–6099. (paper, SI)

-

Go have a look and judge for yourself.

 

How Should the Online Community Handle Suspicious Papers?

Saturday, 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.