Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

JACS temporarily pulls “space dinosaurs” paper for alleged duplication

with 8 comments

Duplication has, as we noted on Twitter the other day, been tripping up more and more scientists. And now self-plagiarism has snared a prominent Columbia University chemist in a paper that left many people scratching their heads to begin with.

As reported by the Chembark blog and Nature, the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) has pulled a paper by Ronald Breslow for alleged duplication. The page for “On Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth,” originally published on March 25, now includes this:


This article was removed by the publisher due to possible copyright concerns. The Journal’s Editor is following established procedure to determine whether a violation of ACS Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research has occurred.

Breslow denied any wrongdoing in comments to Nature:

“When I submitted it I made it clear what I had done to avoid personal plagiarism while still meeting the purpose of the Perspective; it would have made no sense not to describe the previous work, which was requested, as long as I gave the appropriate references,” he wrote.

“Please distinguish a personal review from a paper,” he says. “It was this distinction that led me to write it, while making enough changes to avoid copyright infringement while still telling the real story.”

The problem for Breslow — some 90 of whose papers have been cited more than 100 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge — is that duplication is duplication, whether it’s a “personal review,” a paper, or any other published manuscript. And what seems to have led a lot of people to scrutinize the paper is an April 11 press release headlined “Could ‘advanced’ dinosaurs rule other planets?”

As Nature, which included comparisons to other papers in its post, noted:

Sections of the text of this paper seem to match a previous paper, published in 2011 in the Israel Journal of Chemistry (see example below). Some of the wording is also similar to a paper in the Elsevier journal Tetrahedron Letters. All three papers were authored solely by Breslow.

The similarities between the papers were noted on social-media sites. Nature Chemistry’s chief editor Stuart Cantrill highlighted (literally) the similarities between the JACS and Israel Journal of Chemistry papers in a series of pictures.

JACS’s move is unusual, for two related reasons. One, journals don’t  generally remove a paper while they’re investigating; they wait until they’ve finished their inquiry. A journal might use an Expression of Concern, which this more or less seems to be, but the paper will remain available.

Two, most journals, consistent with Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines, will leave a retracted paper online, just marked as retracted. That’s what JACS did in the three retraction cases we’ve covered. In two, they simply left the paper online, while in the other, they turned the retracted paper into supplemental information.

We’ve contacted Breslow and JACS editor Peter Stang for comment. In the meantime, you can browse a collection of links about this case at Chembark.

Update, 5:30 p.m. Eastern, 4/27/12: Stang responded to tell us that he can’t comment while the investigation is underway.

Hat tip: Neil Withers

  • littlegreyrabbit April 27, 2012 at 8:30 am

    Slightly off topic, but did NASA ever retract that ineffably silly arsenic based DNA paper?

    If not, why not?

    • chirality April 27, 2012 at 9:41 am

      The claims of the arsenic paper are next to impossible to disprove because you cannot show that there is no P-to-As replacement in any part of at least one DNA molecule within the bacterium. Not that the authors of this notorious paper proved the presence of any As-containing DNA to begin with. The science was sloppy, the conclusions were far fetched but it still for some strange reasons got published. Now the burden of proof is on the skeptics. Wolfe-Simon’s strategy has been to demand much higher standards from those who want to disprove her claims than the standards she had been happy with while producing her paper. It gives her time to milk this little controversy for a bit longer.

  • Freeheeler April 27, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Wolfe-Simon et al. probably won’t ever get retracted. In my opinion, their paper doesn’t meet any of the criteria for retraction. Their methods may have been sloppy and their conclusions dubious (full disclosure, though: I am not a microbiologist, and some of their methods were lost on me), but those things are all right there for the world to read. In fact, you might consider their paper to be a good example of how the research and publishing process is supposed to work: put the study/results out there and let people make up their own minds. A scientist’s methods, results and conclusions may be far-fetched, but as long as no ethical breaches have occurred, controversy is no reason to retract a paper. And let’s be fair: at least some of the controversy pertains to the media blitz surrounding that paper’s publication, rather than to the paper itself. It is interesting that their paper made it through the peer-review process in such a prestigious journal in the first place, but now that it’s out there, there’s no reason to retract it. FYI, though, that one of Wolfe-Simon et al.’s most vocal critics, Dr. Rosie Redfield, has submitted a manuscript to Science challenging the Wolfe-Simon et al. study. Dr. Redfield has been giving updates about this on her blog: First-time post for me, thanks to Retraction Watch for offering such engaging reading.

  • Toby White April 27, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    “duplication is duplication”? Appropriately enough, since this is a paper on chirality, it really depends on your point of view.

    • Charles Hoogstraten April 27, 2012 at 1:14 pm

      Perhaps the critics in this case should pause to look in a mirror?

  • YouKnowBestOfAll April 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    @ littlegreyrabbit , April 27, 2012 at 8:30 am

    Directly on the topic:

    I wonder WHEN will journals consider seriously the COPYRIGHT irregularities (to put it mildly) stemming from plagiarism/self-plagiarism??

    For example, two identical Figures published in two different journals (without any acknowledgement of the earlier publication), where each journal claims copyrights, is just as if two parties claim to have the original Mona Lisa. This is an absurd!

  • tim d. smith April 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Hm! I’m not suggesting that anyone has, but I suppose that if someone filed a DMCA claim, the COPE guidelines could take a back seat in a hurry.

  • michaelhbriggs May 11, 2012 at 12:42 am

    Ronald Breslow was also a protagonist in another interesting episode, which raised the difficulty of publishing rebuttals and corrections. It was discussed at length in Nature 359: 666-668 (1992) doi:10.1038/359666a0.

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