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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

JACS retracts polymer paper over data concerns

with 14 comments

jacsat_v135i044.inddThe Journal of the American Chemical Society has retracted a 2009 paper on ethylene polymerization after the authors said they were unable to replicate their findings.

The article, “Bimetallic Effects for Enhanced Polar Comonomer Enchainment Selectivity in Catalytic Ethylene Polymerization,”came from the lab of Tobin Marks, a highly decorated — and grant-and-royalty-generating — chemist at Northwestern University.

ChemBark this week reported that the retraction seems to have been prompted by a reader who contacted the blog and the journal in August, raising questions about the data in the article. Check out the post, because it highlights particular trouble spots in the figures.

According to the retraction notice:

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.

In contrast, the results reported in related publications regarding the synthesis of a binuclear catalyst and its ethylene homopolymerization properties,1 and on ligand steric and fluoroalkyl substituent effects on enchainment cooperativity and stability in bimetallic nickel(II) polymerization catalysts,2 have been reproduced.

The two references are to 1) Rodgriguez, B.A.; Delferro, M.; Marks, T.J. Organometallics 2008, 27, 2166-2168; and 2)  Weberski, M.P.; Chen, C.; Delferro, M.; Marks, T.J. Chem. Eur. J. 2012, 18, 10715-10732.

The study has been cited 53 times yet to be cited, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Marks was the subject of a profile in Crain’s Chicago Business last April, which reported that he has brought Northwestern “more than $100 million in grants and royalties” since coming to the school in 1970.

He ranks fifth among Chicago-area inventors, with 126 U.S. patents since 1980, according to the database compiled by Ms. [Deborah] Strumsky, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Mr. Marks estimates his total patent count tops 200.

Marks didn’t respond to our request for comment. But ChemBark said its attempt to reach him by email was met with this reply from Northwestern:

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 promises a follow-up post that might shed more light on this case.

Update, 12:30 p.m. Eastern: Corrected number of citations with strike-through. For some reason, Thomson Scientific has two entries for this paper, one of which said zero citations. The other, which we’ve now found, says 53.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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14 Responses

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  1. If a JACS paper doesn’t get cited even once in four years, it could possible imply that many of the readers had concerns about it.

    Lo Mein

    November 7, 2013 at 9:54 am

    • I am no polymer specialist, but that last sentence by Cubbage is extremely worrisome to me: “steps mandated by the federal government, is that any review remains confidential”. How can one promote transparency, change and reform in science and science publishing when a review is forced, according to Cubbage, by the US Government, to stay mum? Does the same apply to ORI “reviews” or “reports”? Maybe a US scientist – or ORI – would care to explain in more detail this law and/or provide a web-link because this is extremely important.


      November 7, 2013 at 11:50 am

      • That official reply from Northwestern is a big flashing warning sign that the university is aware of problems and actively covering up. They seem to be saying that research integrity laws and rules are a gag order from the government. But no other university interprets it that way.

        Since anyone who looks at the paper can see that it appears to have been faked, the university could have simply stated that investigations are underway etc etc. Instead they seem intent on not investigating, not commenting and not taking responsibility.

        Dan Zabetakis

        November 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm

        • Actually a lot of universities interpret CFR 93 that way. They often refuse to release reports of investigations, citing that rule’s confidentiality provision. But we don’t see things that way. See the second half of this post: http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/climate-science-critic-wegman-reprimanded-by-one-university-committee-while-another-finds-no-misconduct/


          November 7, 2013 at 2:41 pm

          • It makes the difference between incompetence and malfeasance. Note that CFR 93 (according to the quoted section in your previous blog) suggests confidentiality for misconduct proceedings, not for misconduct. Regardless of CFR 93 the university is free to tell us whether they think misconduct has occurred at their institution. They can withhold information as to what disciplinary or other actions have been taken.

            Note the official statement says “If concerns were to be raised regarding the data…” They are clearly pretending that no concerns have been raised, and that was the response to a letter specifically raising such concerns!

            Dan Zabetakis

            November 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    • According to the JACS website, the paper has been cited 60 times. Which means that there is a problem with Retraction Watch’s method of finding citations. Go to the abstract site of the paper and you’ll see the citing papers.


      November 7, 2013 at 12:04 pm

  2. the paper was published the year of the student’s graduation. it seems to me that he was in a hurry to graduate in four years and took some degree of creative license in prepping some data that he thought the work required to be published. i sincerely doubt professors marks or delferro would knowingly publish fabricated data, so it looks like this was just a maverick student who wanted to immediately start at Dow rather than hang around another year or two until he had real results


    November 7, 2013 at 6:13 pm

  3. the organometallics paper from the same authors is also troubling, in the SI, the scheme S4 and scheme S5 appear to be the same spectra with the peak at 34.2 deleted in scheme S5. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/suppl/10.1021/om800208f


    November 7, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    • The spectra certainly look similar, but I don’t think they look identical. The peak at ~21 ppm looks different (better shimmed in Scheme S5). Further, in Scheme S4 there’s a tiny peak at ~24 ppm that’s absent in Scheme S5. There are other differences.

      The Iron Chemist

      November 8, 2013 at 9:17 am

      • Iron Chemist, I think you should look at the noise of the spectra here. The noise shouldn’t be the same for different NMR experiments.


        November 8, 2013 at 10:52 am

        • The spectra look like they have identical baselines to me too.


          November 9, 2013 at 6:52 pm

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