Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

University of La Laguna ethics committee finds evidence of misconduct in chemists’ papers

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jacsat_v134i049.inddA committee at the University of La Laguna (ULL), in Spain’s Canary Islands, has found evidence of misconduct by two chemists in at least two papers. One of those authors had already been forced to retract a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).

The story is complicated. Here’s a try at telling it: In 2006, David Diaz-Diaz, a chemist then at the Autonomous University of Madrid , made a discovery that would eventually lead to a 2008 paper in JACS, “Instantaneous Low Temperature Gelation by a Multicomponent Organogelator Liquid System Based on Ammonium Salts.” But by the time he made that discovery, Diaz-Diaz was moving to the Dow Chemical Company, in Switzerland. So, to continue the work, he decided to collaborate with ULL’s Jose Juan Marrero-Tellado, who in turn made it part of masters’ student Daniel Garcia-Velazquez’s tasks.

One of Garcia-Velazquez’s tasks was to visit with a rheology research group. (Rheology, according to Faith Morrison, is “the study of the flow of materials that behave in an interesting or unusual manner. Oil and water flow in familiar, normal ways, whereas mayonnaise, peanut butter, chocolate, bread dough, and Silly Putty flow in complex and unusual ways.”) The idea was to characterize, in more detail, the gel materials that were the subject of the JACS paper, using an instrument unavailable at ULL. Garcia-Velazquez did this over the course of two visits, but Diaz-Diaz and Marrero-Tellado needed more data, so they asked the host group to complete it. Diaz-Diaz tells us:

This required the preparation of the materials, which was supposed to be very easy as we published in the article. To our surprise, the rheological group communicated that they could not repeat the preparation of the materials as we had described. We discussed this with the student in order to find what the problem was. The student provided a series of experimental data that later were proved to be incorrect.

Even more alarming, Garcia-Velazquez started behaving inappropriately, says Diaz-Diaz, eventually leaving Marrero-Tellado’s supervision to finish his PhD thesis with Angel Gutiérrez-Ravelo, who was also a co-author on the JACS paper. Diaz-Diaz tried communicating with Garcia-Velazquez and Gutiérrez-Ravelo several times, to no avail. He and Marrero-Tellado told the journal about their concerns, but their two co-authors did not agree.

Diaz-Diaz and Marrero-Tellado suggested that JACS have independent labs confirm their findings, and the authors recommended a few such labs. One of those laboratories was run by the University of Córdoba’s Rafael Luque. Two reports from Luque’s group seemed to confirm the paper’s findings, but  information from Diaz-Diaz’s group and Marrero-Tellado led the editor to discount Luque’s report.

The JACS editor suggested a correction, but Garcia-Velazquez and Gutierrez-Ravelo would not agree to that either. Finally, the editor and Diaz-Diaz and Marrero-Tellado agreed to a retraction, which ran on November 30, 2011:

The corresponding authors (David Díaz Díaz and José Juan Marrero Tellado) have been unable to reproducibly prepare the multicomponent organogelator solution under the reported conditions. Accordingly the corresponding authors withdraw this publication.

Diaz-Diaz and Marrero-Tellado then published a new paper, with corrected findings, in February in Soft Matter.

But that’s not the end of the story. While all of this was going on, Garcia-Velazquez and Luque published two papers. One, “Spontaneous Orthogonal Self-Assembly of a Synergetic Gelator System,” was published in March 2011 in Chemistry: A European Journal, and was related to the now-retracted JACS paper. The other, “Efficient and straightforward preparation of a building block for (−)-teubrevin G synthesis via chemically diversed oriented synthesis,” was published in Tetrahedron Letters in December 2011 and was based on another of Marrero-Tellado’s projects.

Diaz-Diaz and Marrero-Tellado had a number of concerns about these papers, which they brought to the attention of the journals’ editors, and also to ULL. ULL’s Ethical Committee for Research and Animal Welfare (ECRAW, or CEIBA in Spanish, for Comité de Ética de la Investigación y el Bienestar Animal) investigated the case, and issued them in a November report a final report forwarded to us by Diaz-Diaz.

Among its findings: The ECRAW said that in the Tetrahedron Letters paper, there was evidence that Garcia-Velasquez had appropriated ideas, experiments, research results, and conclusions developed during his time as a graduate student, without his supervisors’ permission. The data, according to the committee, do not belong to Garcia-Velasquez, who claimed to be affiliated with two ULL institutions where he has no ties. And Luque, the second author on the paper, didn’t seem to meet requirements of authorship.

In the Chemistry: A European Journal (CEJ) paper, they found that Garcia-Velasquez duplicated figures  in a 2007 paper by Diaz-Diaz, Morrero-Tellado, and Garcia-Velasquez and others, and also misrepresented his affiliations along with the funding of the study.

The committee recommended that the CEJ paper be retracted, and that the authors write to the editors of Tetrahedron Letters to make changes in affiliations and other issues. They also suggested that the researchers be banned from research at ULL, and that their report be sent to directors of the ULL departments involved, as well as the editors of the journals, and the Ethical Committee for Research of the University of Córdoba and CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) centers where the authors are affiliated

Garcia-Vazquez told Retraction Watch he did not agree with the findings, and that the papers have not been retracted. (Tetrahedron Letters tells us they have not heard from him.)

It is very serious, my documentation was not taken into account.

He also referred to a court case involving the dispute — he wasn’t sure whether it would end up being civil or criminal — which has yet to be resolved.

We’ll update this story as we learn more.

Comments
  • chirality December 27, 2012 at 11:28 am

    “[T]here was evidence that Garcia-Velasquez had appropriated ideas, experiments, research results, and conclusions developed during his time as a graduate student, without his supervisors’ permission. The data, according to the committee, do not belong to Garcia-Velasquez”.
    Is this just a coincidence that “ideas, experiments, research results, and conclusions” were developed during the time Garcia-Velasquez was a grad student? Or maybe he had something to do with all these things? They say that the data do not belong to the grad student who, I presume (the notice appears deliberately vague on this), generated them. But they do not say who, in their opinion, is their rightful owner. His supervisors who, as far as I know how such relationships function, did not run a single experiment but contributed in a far less tangible fashion?
    It is apparent that the two pairs of scientists are at war and the total destruction is the objective. It is really petty.

    • JudyH December 27, 2012 at 9:18 pm

      I take the sentence to mean that Garcia Velasquez had appropriated — from other people — and had published as his own some ideas and research results that other people were generating while he was a grad student. One of those appropriations ended up as a paper in Tetrahedron Letters, based on ideas developed by Marrero Tellado but without Marrero Tellado’s name on it. At least so claim Diaz Diaz and Marerro Tellado.

      This is a wonderfully typical mess that brings back so many memories. Thank you a dozen times, RW, for making me laugh.

      • chirality December 28, 2012 at 1:42 am

        The committee would have called this theft not appropriation. This, in turn, would have rendered the Tetrahedron Letters paper (letter?) fraudulent and suitable for retraction. Instead, the only recommendation is ” to make changes in affiliations and other issues”. No need to remove the author who “didn’t seem to meet requirements of authorship” or add those to whom “[the] ideas, experiments, research results, and conclusions” belong. They also say that the guy appropriated all this things “without his supervisors’ permission” – it just sounds nonsensical because nobody can take research results from one person and give to another to claim as their own.

      • JudyH December 29, 2012 at 12:02 pm

        Considering the ambiguous and illogical statements in the committee’s report, I don’t see how you can be sure that the committee would have called this “theft” rather than “appropriation”. But in any case, I agree that graduate students who generate their ideas and their data do own their data, and they don’t lose ownership because of having taken the initiative to do experiments that they did not have explicit permission to do.

  • rhyme December 28, 2012 at 10:25 am

    politics…

    • JudyH December 29, 2012 at 11:49 am

      Yes, if it were possible, university politics would give politics a bad name.

      The tale contains hints of several questionable university practices and it culminates with Marrero Tellado working to get the grad student’s paper retracted and to destroy the careers of the researchers who worked with the grad student after he defected from Marrero Tellado’s group. Hell hath no fury like a professor scorned.

  • (CH3)2N- December 31, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    “Garcia-Velazquez did this over the course of two visits, but Diaz-Diaz and Marrero-Tellado needed more data, so they asked the host group to complete it. Diaz-Diaz tells us:

    This required the preparation of the materials, which was supposed to be very easy as we published in the article. To our surprise, the rheological group communicated that they could not repeat the preparation of the materials as we had described. We discussed this with the student in order to find what the problem was. The student provided a series of experimental data that later were proved to be incorrect.”

    “Incorrect”? Is this a polite way of saying “made up”? Have a third party try the preps. If they don’t work then throw his sorry butt out.

  • merian January 1, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    This is a minor editorial note – I hope you’ll forgive me: There should be no hyphens in the names of the Spanish researchers.

    According to Spanish naming practices a person gets to use two surnames, these being one’s parents’ first surnames. So for Daniel Garcia Velazquez, one parent (probably the father, though equality laws allow for this to be reversed) was called [firstname(s}] Garcia [second surname] and the other parent was called [firstname[s]] Velazquez [second surname]. In David Diaz Diaz’s case, both parents had the same first surname. For anyone familar with Spanish names, your hyphens, which aren’t on the papers that I’ve seen, look quite wrong.

    I hope I could be of service upholding your consistently high standards of correctness.

    • JudyH January 1, 2013 at 9:18 pm

      Interestingly, the European Journal of Organic Chemistry did use a hyphen in Marrero Tellado’s name but not in the names of the other authors. Probably an oversight. A European journal should know better. Maybe they use a hyphen initially to retain both names in the computer system when the paper is making its way through the review process and then remove the hyphen when it comes time to publish … and forgot to remove it. Or maybe some other glitch happened.

      To me, the hyphens are easily understandable as indicating that both words are what Americans understand as being the “last name” or “family name”. With science being international, it’s good for everybody to get used to how other cultures arrange their names — for instance, the Chinese put the family name first — but in an English-language blog there should be some standarization. Otherwise, we would need a language lesson on many of the posts. Not that I would mind a language lesson. I like languages. But most of the readers are probably more interested in the science than in the language of the scientist. So the hyphens seem like a good compromise — halfway between the two options of dropping the second family name or risking confusion when referring to the person later in the post.

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