Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Chemists Bielawski and Wiggins up to eight expressions of concern, one retraction

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bielawski

Christopher Bielawski

Two researchers who already had three expressions of concern under their belts have five more, plus a retraction.

Kelly Wiggins and Christopher Bielawski share authorship on all the papers in question. After the first set of EoCs, Bielawski, at the time a PI at UT Austin, told Chemistry and Engineering News that a “former lab member” had admitted to faking the data. The recent retraction indicates that University of Texas at Austin’s Office of Research Integrity formally investigated the lab, and determined that Bielawski was telling the truth about a former lab member being to blame.

Bielawski has since taken a post at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. He told us that move was unrelated to anything that happened at UT Austin, but declined to answer other questions. Wiggins got a postdoc at the University of Illinois, which an Illinois spokesperson confirmed lasted from July 1 2013 to January 22 2014; we’re waiting to hear back on our question about whether her departure had anything to do with misconduct.

Here’s the retraction notice for “A Mechanochemical Approach to Deracemization,” in Wiley journal Angewandte Chemie:

This Communication, first published online on January 4, 2012 in Wiley Online Library (www.wileyonlinelibrary.com), has been retracted by agreement between the corresponding author, the journal Editor in Chief, Peter Gölitz and Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA . The retraction has been agreed since at least some of the data presented are unreliable. As part of an inquiry, a former research group member admitted to falsifying and/or fabricating data affecting this article. The action prompted a formal investigation by the Office of Research Integrity at the University of Texas at Austin, which later determined that scientific misconduct had occurred.

The paper has been cited 29 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

The Journal of the American Chemical Society has put out three expressions of concern for the following papers by Bielawski and Wiggins:

The EoC for each of those reads:

This article is currently under editorial review. The journal has been alerted to scientific misconduct in the context of this article. The status of this article will be updated upon completion of the editorial review.

Journal of Materials Chemistry has put out two EoCs for Bielawski and Wiggins:

Those both read:

The Royal Society of Chemistry has been contacted by the corresponding author of this article and the Research Integrity Officer at The University of Texas at Austin regarding concerns of scientific misconduct affecting this article. The Research Integrity Officer has informed us that an investigation to ascertain the validity of the work reported has found that scientific misconduct has taken place.   Journal of Materials Chemistry is publishing this expression of concern in order to alert our readers that we are presently unsure of the reliability of the data reported in the article. We have contacted the Research Integrity Officer to request more details regarding the scientific misconduct determined in their investigation, in order to determine the appropriate course of action. An expression of concern will continue to be associated with the article until we receive further information from the Research Integrity Officer on this matter.

Fiona McKenzie
Executive Editor, Journal of Materials Chemistry

The director of media relations from UT Austin responded to the query we sent to their research integrity officer:

Unfortunately, because the person involved in this matter was affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin at the time the misconduct occurred, the university is prohibited by federal privacy law from releasing much of the relevant information — including the investigative report. We have been working with scientific journals to provide as much information as possible to correct the scientific record but we must also respect our obligations under privacy laws.

Hat tip: Retraction Watch commenters

Comments
  • lhac January 13, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    It would be very helpful to know which part of the data is unreliable, and where exactly misconduct has taken place.

    In the absence of such information, future researchers cannot assess what is the problem with those mechano-chemical experiments: are they fundamentally flawed, or might they still be o.k., if a more sensitive/suitable analytical method would be used?

    If no detailed information about the problems in those experiments will become available, future researchers are bound to repeat those experiments, simply in order to find out, which part was flawed… good luck with that.

  • Wiley request January 13, 2015 at 4:45 pm

    lhac, you are absolutely right. We are into 2015, with a debate on retractions raging now for at least 4 years, and Wiley still publishes these opaque notices. You are absolutely right in stating that the scientific community cannot learn at all from these errors, but not thanks to the authors, instead, thanks to the publisher. By retracting the paper, we hold the authors accountable. By making sure that the retraction notice provides a full complement and an in-depth explanation of the problems, the exact reasons while presenting precise proof will also be the only way to hold the publishers accountable. We must no longer tolerate such opaque retraction notices. Is it science, or is this law? Most certainly a strongly worded e-mail to the editors and publishers for not being transparent with regards to the details is well within reasonable expectations.

  • Thomas Munro January 13, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    Can the university specify exactly which federal privacy law prohibits the release of findings of misconduct? What a surreal claim.

  • Alan Price January 17, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    Thomas, to your question, did you see the recent case on RW
    http://retractionwatch.com/2015/01/14/u-colorado-golden-boy-grad-student-faked-data-drug-lab-says-investigation/

    with its link to the Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
    http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html

    as the reason for redaction of details about the student.

  • NotClareFrancis January 23, 2015 at 8:15 am

    I think these journals have had enough time to make a decision about these articles.

    I also think ACS Macro Letters 2012, 1, 623-626 deserves to come under scrutiny. It is a viewpoint article that principally discusses the untrustworthy data from Science and Angewandte. I doubt the authors would have been invited to write such an article without those two articles.

    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/mz300167y

    Angewandte has acted and I think Science, JACS and the RSC journals should either remove these Expressions of Concern or retract the articles. We know the data is unreliable, the student admitted as much, what else could possibly be investigated? This situation is utterly ridiculous. The Federal Privacy Regulations obviously haven’t achieved a lot since anyone with half a brain can jigsaw together what has happened and who is at fault based on what is currently in the public domain.

    A comment on another thread stated something like “don’t allow the actions of one individual to affect the reputations of other innocent parties.” If the community following this story had identified the wrong researcher as data fabricator (and Bielawski had declined to name which person had manipulated data to C and EN News after the Expression of Concern for the Science article, with a different first author) would the University of Texas have still declined to release the name under Privacy Laws?

    I want this data fabricator gone from the literature.

    • blatnoi January 23, 2015 at 4:18 pm

      That’s a good point about the viewpoint article. I’m going to read it a bit later to find out more about the field to see which other labs are active in the area, but yes, if it discusses data that has been retracted, it should have an expression of concern that states as much. As of yet though, the majority of the data has not been retracted…

      Let’s say it wasn’t the same group that wrote the viewpoint. Asking for a retraction would be a bit harsh then because they did not fabricate anything in research discussed and thus in the viewpoint, but an expression of concern is definitely warranted. So the same standard should apply for all authors, even if the first author is the one who admitted to misconduct.

  • NotClareFrancis February 6, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    Looks like Bielawski is no longer an Associate Editor of Chemical Science. I noticed at the time that these retractions occurred that he was a senior member of the Editorial Board for the journal but declined to mention it, but his name is absent from the list today. You can look at Dec 3rd 2014 on the WayBack Machine. He was certainly still listed as an Editor last time I posted in this comments section. Given what has transpired I think his position at the journal was untenable.

    He is still a member of the Advisory Board for Polymer Chemistry, but listed as being at Texas rather than Korea. Personally, I hope he keeps this role because he might be able to contribute in some way that could help rebuild the reputation of his laboratory.

    However, the scientific literature still needs correcting. I have zero confidence in any data presented by these authors regardless if it is accurate or not, and honesty and integrity is at the heart of science. If this work was submitted as part of a PhD thesis then I believe the PhD should be revoked.

    Based on the incidents involving Organic Letters and Organometallics, I suspect an ACS “Editorial Review” is code for “we have asked the laboratory in question to repeat experiments and collect, locate and supply the raw data that demonstrates that the reported results are accurate” so this process could actually take a lot longer than I had first thought. If the data is broadly accurate the articles might be allowed to remain, perhaps correctly.

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