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