“Stupid, it should not be done that way”: Researcher explains how duplications led to a retraction
More than two years ago, we wrote about a retraction for duplication in Biophysical Journal prompted by an email from pseudonymous whistleblower Clare Francis. That post generated a robust discussion, including one comment from someone calling himself or herself “Double Dutch.”
This past weekend, the last author of that paper, Rienk van Grondelle, left a lengthy response to that comment in which he explained how the duplication happened. We’ve confirmed that it was van Grondelle who left the comment, which we reproduce here in full (we’ve added paragraph breaks for readability):
First of all, I will reply with my real name, not something fake. Second, this is not an attempt to excuse myself or my co-authors, it is a record of how things sometimes go in serious science where real discoveries are being made.
Around the turn of the previous century I initiated the kind of single molecule experiments as described in the retracted paper. The idea was to watch environmental (pH, temp, salt, detergent) induced transitions at the level of a single photosynthetic complex, an underlying idea was that maybe such an environmentally controlled function might be a basis for for instance the regulation of photosynthesis (anybody who has taken the trouble to follow my scientific career since then, may have noticed that indeed we have a lot of experimental proof that this is indeed the case).
When we started these experiments around 2000 they were unique in the world, nobody had done anything similar. We built equipment, we developed a procedure to study photosynthetic complexes at the single molecule level, while at the same time keeping them alive, we developed software to analyze the data, we extended and applied our excitonic models to interpret the results. All of this was only and uniquely done by us, we were the only research team in the world doing such experiments. I remember going to Gordon conferences and showing these results and blowing an audience away.
The results of this work were fantastic and laid the basis for what I and many others are doing today. When in 2003/4 we were in the process of reporting our first results on the peripheral photosynthetic light-harvesting complex of photosynthetic purple bacteria for biophysical journal, we realized that these findings were unique, we were aware of some possible competition and we decided to make a short version of the manuscript meant for biophysical journal (where i have published and am publishing much of my best scientific work), this was published as an accelerated paper in biochemistry and later the much extended manuscript in biophysical journal was published and later retracted.
For anyone who has any idea about (1) the uniqueness of these experiments, (2) the complexity of the conditions under which they were performed reading the two papers would make it immediately clear that the biochemistry paper is a short, condensed version of the biophysical journal version. Yes we should have been more careful with the precise text (but would it have changed anything to the meaning), yes we could have produced ‘original’ figures (but would it have changed anything to the discovery), yes we should have made cross-references/self-citations, but maybe we forgot.
Stupid, it should not be done that way, but disqualifying this research as just copying and copying and copying is not right. I and the people who did this research with me at that time are very proud of this work, it is absolutely unique, there is nothing even remotely similar and for that reason biophysical journal should have been proud of this article and these discoveries and have allowed me to explain the history of this work.
We appreciate van Grondelle’s frankness and can only hope that more researchers will tell us the stories behind their retractions.