The quote in the title of this post is a potential Onion headline that didn’t make it into print. It was part of an episode of This American Life that aired last week, and it seemed apropos, even though the subject here is superconductors rather than biology.
After all, we’ve written about a retraction that resulted from ordering the wrong mice. Today, we bring you the tale of a retraction caused by a mislabeled bottle. According to a retraction notice that appeared online last month in Physical Review B:
Recently we published a paper entitled “Superconductivity in the Rh-based Heusler familyMRh2Sn” [Phys. Rev. B 82, 134520 (2010)]. Due to the mislabeling of a rebottled chemical-starting material, the superconductors originally reported in this paper as Rh intermetallics are now known to be Pd intermetallics. The basic superconducting properties of the Pd compounds have been previously reported.
We are sorry for this error, and ask that the paper not be regarded as part of the scientific literature. The retracted manuscript includes some previously unpublished data on Pd Heusler superconductors, which with suitable reanalysis may be appropriate for reporting in a different publication.
Rh, for those of us who haven’t memorized the periodic table of the elements, is rhodium. Pd is palladium.
We asked senior author Robert Cava of Princeton how he learned about the error, and what’s likely to happen next:
After the paper was published we came in contact with another research group that was working on similar materials. They told us informally that their results did not agree with ours. We tried to figure out why, and found out that a scientist who was not involved in our project had rebottled an elemental metal and accidentally mislabeled the bottle. The elemental metal in the mislabeled bottle was used by our group as one of the starting materials for our synthesis. Therefore the compounds we reported on in the publication had the incorrect chemical formulas.
This has never happened to me previously in my thirty years of research. When we discovered this error we immediately contacted the editors of Phys Rev B to retract the paper. We are currently working to properly synthesize our original target compounds and report their properties.
Kudos to Cava’s team. We wouldn’t label this as anything but transparent science at its finest.
Hat tip: Adam Johan Bergren.