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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 22, 2013

ACSNano on Problematic Papers

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Posted by Derek

The editorial board at ACSNano has come out with a statement on how they'd like problematic papers to be handled. This, the article most pointedly does not say, is surely a response to the controversy over a recent (ridiculously Photoshopped) paper that appeared in the journal. That one didn't make anyone look good, and I can see why the editors felt that they had to make an effort.

The piece is superficially reasonable. They're asking that if someone sees a paper with questionable content, that they should contact the journal first, which I think is good practice in any case. But then we have this:

In the end, a decision will be made, ranging from notification that no cause was found to support the accusations made, corrections to a published article, retraction of the article, and/or to notifying the authors’ institutions of such actions. At ACS Nano, we take scientific fraud seriously and, as needed, retract articles and place sanctions on authors for set numbers of years, including bans on further submissions. 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.

While we appreciate readers being critical and thus helping to weed out incorrect or fraudulent manuscripts, we still should not consider each publication from a competitor as being potentially wrong. A climate of mistrust will not help anyone and will only hamper honest scientists, which are the great majority of our community. Researchers make their reputations by publishing excellent data, not by being whistleblowers with mixed records of accuracy. It is easy to criticize the work of others, but it is substantially harder to achieve something by oneself. In other words, be critical, but never forget to be fair. One can be competitive, but still friends with colleagues, who naturally are also in some ways competitors. We are all humans, and we should never forget the human touches in our work.

So no one is supposed to comment until the editors have made a decision, no matter how long that might take? Desirable or not, I don't see that happening. Look, a scientific paper, once published out on the flippin' internet, is open to comment from whoever wishes to read it. That's what it's there for, to be made use of as its readers find appropriate. I tend to think that a more wide-open discussion of the merits of articles (or their lack of same) is actually good for the field. It should spur people on to write better papers, and put a bit more fear into those who might be tempted to fake things up.

I realize that people are afraid of libel, of character assassination, and so on. But arguing over the details of scientific publications does not lend itself to those activities very easily, although it's certainly true that there are plenty of folks out there who would not above that sort of thing if they thought they could get away with it. But these misdeeds are rather transparent, for the most part, and can just end up making the accusers themselves look foolish. They get the same kind of scrutiny as everyone else. (And besides, don't the sorts of people who really get into that stuff have a significant overlap with the sorts who would fake their papers?) I don't see this as mistrust - I see it as science. If your results are firm, they should be able to stand up to some shaking. If they can't, well, everyone should know about it. If you accuse someone mistakenly, well, you yourself should be ready to take the consequences of that, too. On the other hand, assuming (as the ACSNano piece seems to assume) that anyone with complaints about a paper must be a disgruntled competitor seems be a rather mistrustful way to look at things, too.

That second paragaph above, with its "play nice" advice, should be read while glancing at the "nanorod" photos from that recent paper. Try to reconcile the high-minded tone with what you see, and see if you have any better luck than I did.

Comments (62) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


COMMENTS

1. Anonymous on October 22, 2013 12:03 PM writes...

This is just a case of the editors wanting to keep full control of potential PR crises like the one they had. But they are surely deluded, as with the internet, nobody controls anything.

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2. Anonymous on October 22, 2013 12:07 PM writes...

Perhaps the editors and reviewers should just focus on doing their job properly in the first place, rather than trying to hide their shortcomings from public scrutiny.

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3. bearing on October 22, 2013 12:39 PM writes...

" 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."

Uhhhhh... this is unbelievably fatuous.

(a) Commentary is a right, in this country at least, and not a privilege.

(b) There are no time-based restrictions, certainly not ones dependent on the pace of deliberation of an editorial board.

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4. NoDrugsNoJobs on October 22, 2013 12:54 PM writes...

I think it was pretty generous to even allow us to comment at all. They could have required no commentary and then where we would be? We are lucky to be living in such a kind country where we have many benefactors allowing us the privilege to talk about scientific subjects. We should simply be grateful for the editor's kindness and leave it at that. When I start a journal, I may not be so kind - I may fine individual's who speak out against various publications in my journal and possibly even imprison them

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5. opsomath on October 22, 2013 1:06 PM writes...

tl;dr:

Dear Internet,

It has come to our attention that you said things that made us look bad. Please check with us before saying things in the future.

Signed,
ACS Nano Editors.

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6. anonymous on October 22, 2013 1:09 PM writes...

Don't want complaints out in the open? Don't publish papers in the open, then (and don't take people's money for them, either.)

Sorry, but if you publish papers with transparent Photoshop jobs such as the (uncited) retraction, then the journal and the authors probably ought to expect to be dragged through the mud. For most of the papers earning this type of derision, there is very little room for doubt as to the nature of the problem. In these cases, there is almost no conceivable explanation that would exculpate both all of the authors and the journal. Readers may not be able to assign blame to a particular person (though the people who looked at the article for the journal are not going to blameless in any case), but they can definitely make the conclusion that there is blame to be assigned.

It seems as if the editors would like to unwish the last ten years of chemistry, starting at the Sames debacle (and forgetting that if we had to wait for editorial statements to say anything about questionable articles, people would still be wondering why their imidazole C-H couplings don't work.) Why would they think this would be an improvement for anyone but them, and why would sane readers follow their advice?

Do you think if people had bought a Clancy book and found out that he copied half of it from Larry Bond, they would not comment until the publisher had done their own diligence? I would guess not - at $30 a pop, people would feel rather screwed over. Considering how much people pay for articles and subscriptions, I don't know why the editors expect their readers to be more accepting.

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7. ConfusedChemist on October 22, 2013 1:09 PM writes...

The statement that I find particularly troubling is:

"...we still should not consider each publication from a competitor as being potentially wrong."

We are scientists. We should consider each publication, no matter the source, as potentially wrong.

When I first look at an interesting paper, my first thought is "that's neat!", followed by "That can't be right." Then I go read the rest of the paper, and if it's a good one, I'm left with "I guess they were right, and I learned something new."

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8. King Jeoffrey on October 22, 2013 1:28 PM writes...

Reader I command you to be silent! ...unless I agree with you.

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9. gippgig on October 22, 2013 1:34 PM writes...

Off topic but relevant: Frontline on PBS this week is about the antibiotic-resistant bacteria problem. Check your local listings (10 PM tonight in Washington, D.C.).

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10. Am I Lloyd on October 22, 2013 1:50 PM writes...

Another old, bureaucratic, elephantine organization arguing that grievances should all be aired through the "proper channels". Wake up and realize this is 2013, ACS Nano.

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11. MoMo on October 22, 2013 1:58 PM writes...

OK ACS Nano- Where is the explanation by Leonard F Pease and the University of Utah?

We pay a lot for your publication, and if you EVER get an explanation, as you insist its his right, let us all know.

We'll be waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting......

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12. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on October 22, 2013 2:00 PM writes...

Interesting to see this, on the same day that the pilot version of PubMed Commons was launched.

http://ncbiinsights.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2013/10/22/pubmed-commons-a-new-forum-for-scientific-discourse/

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13. Curious Wavefunction on October 22, 2013 2:09 PM writes...

There's also an interesting exchange taking place on Twitter where ACS Nano has claimed that they do NOT (emphasis theirs) cite blogs and tweets in their pieces. In response Stuart Cantrill from Nat Chem has helpfully pointed out at least one piece where a post from Retraction Watch was officially cited, probably because, you know, it is a more respectable blog than many of ours...It's quite unfair of ACS Nano in this case to skirt over the nano-rods controversy and fail to cite Chembark and Chemistry Blog.

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14. Anonymous on October 22, 2013 2:20 PM writes...

Great response from the editors: bury your head in the sand and then ask everyone else to.

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15. DCRogers on October 22, 2013 2:38 PM writes...

Maybe I'm just lazy, but if *I* were an editor, I'd happily read all the net commentary on an issue that winded up in my lap, letting others do a lot of leg work for me. Then, I would trust in my own judgement in what parts (if any) to use.

It's weird they see net discussion as something to be choked off or ignored, rather than a gold mine of directly-applicable content, when performing an editorial task.

Or maybe I'm just lazy...

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16. anonymous on October 22, 2013 2:39 PM writes...

The editorial board at ACSNano has come out with a statement on how they'd like problematic papers to be handled.

The memory hole.

As a secondary note, wouldn't one figure that when most of your interesting results are primarily evidenced by pictures, you'd have a way to see that the images hadn't been manipulated? Guess not.

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17. Anonymous on October 22, 2013 2:51 PM writes...

Dear Editors,

Thank you for telling me to keep my views as a customer to myself, and to not share them with other customers.

To show my gratitude I would also like to offer you some advice:

Get real. Take advantage of the fact that you can hear what your customers really think about your journal on the internet, listen to them, and focus on doing your quality control job properly.

Permalink to Comment

18. BobChem on October 22, 2013 3:40 PM writes...

Honestly, it's about time we see some public shame for scientific fraud (I do read "Retraction Watch" from time to time). It is absolutely ridicule-worthy that not only did these images escape the REVIEWERS' attention, but they made it all the way into publication.

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19. bad wolf on October 22, 2013 3:53 PM writes...

Nothing makes this look like the oligarchs lording it over the hoi polloi like finishing off with some vacation photos from the mutual admiration society's (paid for) vacation in China.

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20. student on October 22, 2013 4:33 PM writes...

As someone on twitter said, "I think pointing and laughing, where appropriate, should be a more rigorous part of our scientific discussion." I think pointing and laughing at these editors is an appropriate response in this case.

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21. anonymous on October 22, 2013 4:56 PM writes...

"If you accuse someone mistakenly, well, you yourself should be ready to take the consequences of that, too." - D Lowe

Which is not going to happen if the accuser is anonymous. Which they usually are on internet comments sections. Which is where the more vitriolic and accusatory statements are made.

I've got no problems with what Chemistry Blog did in exposing the ACSNano paper. Or the other blogs that have exposed problematic papers in an appropriate way. Ideally, a blogger should raise concerns with papers to the editor first before posting, but that's more just to be honorable and maintain a working relationship with the editor than some sort of requirement.

Many of the anonymous comments there, and on Chembark were however, IMO, unhelpful at best, toxic at worst. Case it point: trashing peer reviewers on the Dorta/Organometallics paper, then we found out later that the reviewers didn't see the revised SI where the infamous note was inserted. Wisdom of crowds balanced by the ignorance of mobs.

Ban anonymous comments on blog entries like the ACSNano & Dorta/Organometallics posts, says the anonymous commenter.

"Honestly, it's about time we see some public shame for scientific fraud" - BobChem

[start sarcasm]

Right, because scientific fraud was totally acceptable before blogs came along and exposed fraudsters. Now we, as a community, know that scientific misconduct is wrong. But you're right, the real benefit is in their public shaming function, which has greatly reduced the incidences of scientific misconduct appearing in the literature. I'm sure I have a plot somewhere showing the decrease in frequency of scientific misconduct vs. increase in number of science blogs on the internet over time. Thank heaven for public shaming on blogs!

We all deserve a pat on the back. And ice cream.

[end sarcasm]

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22. Anon on October 22, 2013 5:14 PM writes...

That last photo in the editorial is ridiculous. It adds silliness to insult.

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23. another anonymous (not 21) on October 22, 2013 5:24 PM writes...

You do remember that little Sames thing, right? Or LaClair's *cough* synthesis of hexacyclinol? Blogs exist in chemistry in part because of the (lack of a) response by journals to problems with the articles they published. Blogs didn't force corrections, but they did inform people that problems existed. To contrast, how many people knew that Chatterjee dry-labbed his way to isocomene (and some other compounds) before Cornforth nuked him from orbit? It's a lot harder to hold up something fraudulent and waste a lot people's time if people can facilely exchange information.

As for the problems with anonymity, well, there's this comment by Paul Brookes as a counterpoint.

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24. Anonymous No53 on October 22, 2013 5:39 PM writes...

In the immortal words from the television caster in the movie Airplane, "I say let'em crash". I am with Derek on this one, if you are cavalier enough to publish squares you are cavalier enough to be mocked on the web. However, what is the punishment for someone on the web getting the "accusation" wrong. Law suit for sure, but if it is worded properly? I am no lawyer but I can see a hundred ways out of that suit.

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25. Anonymous on October 22, 2013 5:47 PM writes...

We are all humans, and we should never forget the human touches in our work.

Well, this all started because of an incompetent human touch in Photoshop, and the desire of the editors to forget that the result ever ran through their hands (or computers). Irony's not someone's strong suit, I guess.

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26. Anonymous on October 22, 2013 5:48 PM writes...

We are all humans, and we should never forget the human touches in our work.

Well, this all started because of an incompetent human touch in Photoshop, and the desire of the editors to forget that the result ever ran through their hands (or computers). Irony's not someone's strong suit, I guess.

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27. Renee on October 22, 2013 6:34 PM writes...

And now, the editors of ACS Nano Letters have re-focused attention all over again on the infamous Photoshopped squares and rectangles. This was not the Internet response they were hoping for, alas. They would have been better off not publishing this lame editorial. It's smacks of both a 'we know better than you' attitude, mixed in with a kindergartener's worldview of "Let's all be friends with each other! No one is allowed to hurt anyone's feelings! We are all best friends forever!!!"

I must add, the editorial's ending focus on the trip to China is creepy, and not relevant to the subject matter at hand.

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28. Anonymous on October 22, 2013 6:39 PM writes...

That picture at the end looks photoshopped!

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29. I'm anonymous and so is my wife! on October 22, 2013 7:21 PM writes...

This editorial statement comes in as completely tone-deaf.

The reasoning behind discouraging anonymity makes no sense (I've read plenty of anonymous reasoning that is completely valid and insightful, the burden of filtering spam isn't too bad at all with modern filtering systems).

I notice that the editors also include the PI of this paper currently under considerable scrutiny at PubPeer:

https://pubpeer.com/publications/54AECF24E96162E3A563AED08BE0B3

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30. annon on October 22, 2013 9:20 PM writes...

we are important. we are more important than you.

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31. Jasnieres on October 23, 2013 3:07 AM writes...

Increasingly, papers are being presented on-line. In this context, why not use the same same procedure that most newspapers now have for articles and include a comments section? It works well for newspapers and blogs such as this one and if competently modded could contribute to the open and collaborative nature of science. Contoversial and innovative papers will be easily identified by the number of comments they attract.
OK, it's a sort of social mediatisation of science which could easily end up going wrong if badly implemented (add a 'like' button in the contents list perhaps??!!) but if properly managed would just be a more open extension of the previous habit of writing letters to the editor.