Elsevier weighs in on Brazilian fraud case

Yesterday, we reported on 11 retractions in various Elsevier chemistry journals of papers from a group of Brazilian scientists who are alleged to have fabricated nuclear magnetic resonance images used in their articles.

We’d spoken with the senior author on those papers, Claudio Airoldi, who defended himself and his colleagues and denied that the NMR images had been manipulated.

Today, we heard from Tom Reller, vice president for global corporate relations at Elsevier, who offered a different version of events.

Here’s what Reller had to say, straight from his email:

After we received the complaint, this case was investigated by the handling editor of the article in JCIS [the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science]. He conducted a thorough investigation and involved three external reviewers. PDFs of the article published in JCIS and the other journals involved were sent to the reviewers. The reviewers reported that it was clear that the NMR results were manipulated, the NMR spectra were not authentic, and concluded that this was a case of fraud. This conclusion was also supported by the handling editor of JCIS. The results of the investigation were shared and discussed with other publishers involved, and we also involved our legal counsel.

After the initial investigation by the editor and external reviewers, the findings were sent to the authors. The authors were asked to send us their original measured NMR data, which they did together with their response to the allegations. It was concluded by a reviewer that the original NMR data included with the Authors’ response did not appear to be equivalent to the data presented in the published papers.

The investigation is concluded so far as we’re concerned.

Clearly, this account doesn’t jibe with Airoldi’s protestations, and we’re not sure we see a way for both descriptions to be true. We’ll continue to update with what we hear.

18 thoughts on “Elsevier weighs in on Brazilian fraud case”

  1. How did this article get through peer-review if it was clear to the investigating reviewers that the spectra were fabricated? This seems very odd.

    1. It likely is due to the expertise of the reviewers that were chosen. It is likely that the original papers were reviewed by other types of experts than those that looked into the case of potentially wrong NMR spectra. In the latter case NMR experts will have been asked to check the spectra. In the former case, likely not. Besides that, even the NMR expert reviewers would probably have had to compare several papers before noticing something odd.

      1. Moreover, with the high number of multidisciplinary research papers submitted for publishing nowadays, it is quite impossible to reviewers get through all details, such compare a NMR spectra published in diferent papers.

  2. I would like to ask a chicken-egg question. The impression I’m getting in many cases is that retractions are being made prior to misconduct cases being investigated by the authors’ universities or funding sources. Is this a false impression? If not, to what degree do retractions lead to formal misconduct investigations by granting agencies, etc.?

    1. Good question, Mark. I think that may be a false impression, but an understandable one given that so many retraction notices are so opaque. What we often find out is that there has been an investigation, but that the retraction notice doesn’t mention it. We’re not sure why. So I think it may be the opposite: Misconduct investigations often lead to retractions.

  3. Thank you Ivan. I keep an eye on ORI’s website for closed misconduct cases which always mentions retractions. As you note, the retractions for the papers frequently do not mention an investigation which clouds transparency. I was wondering if the process ever went the other direction. Has anyone ever cross-checked notices here with ORI or other such agencies?

  4. I am quite surprised with the number of fabricated papers made by the same authors. I have some of these publications (as I work in the field) and indeed, after looking really carefully (not easy to detect by a fast inspection) the NMR spectra seem to be fabricated. At least there are repetitive patterns diffiicult to believe. As a non-expert in NMR, but having seen many NMR spectra, it is hard to believe the results.
    Anyway an explanation should be given for the sake of clarity. Sometimes it is not clear to the reviewers because they are not experts in NMR spectroscopy. But an expert in the field may easily identify a fabrication, which may be perfectly unnoticed by several application scientists rewiewing those works. One day the papers pass through the eyes of such experts and bang! Nobody checks noise patterns and peak shapes usually. Only chemical shifts are checked normally. This, perhaps, answers to movingturtle…

  5. Another big retraction from Cell!!

    Retraction Notice to: DNA-PKcs-PIDDosome: A Nuclear Caspase-2-Activating Complex with Role in G2/M Checkpoint Maintenance

    Mingan Shi, Carolyn J. Vivian, Kyung-Jong Lee, Chunmin Ge, Keiko Morotomi-Yano, Claudia Manzl, Florian Bock, Shigeo Sato, Chieri Tomomori-Sato, Ruihong Zhu, Jeffrey S. Haug, Selene K. Swanson, Michael P. Washburn, David J. Chen, Benjamin P.C. Chen, Andreas Villunger, Laurence Florens and Chunying DuCorresponding Author Contact Information, E-mail The Corresponding Author

    Available online 31 March 2011.

  6. My question is similar to Mark Holcombe’s … has the author’s institution investigated these claims? In clear-cut cases (eg obvious plagiarism) it’s OK for journals to retract on the basis of the evidence in front of them, but for more technical scientific fraud one would expect the publisher to ask the institution to investigate. However, gross manipulation of images can sometimes be detected — so maybe that’s the case here. But in any case, one would hope that the institution would respond.

    1. The author’s institution started an investigation about the case one day after Elsevier retracted the papers and it will take 30 days to have some conclusion. The National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) started another investigation and has departed the researcher of his works in the Council.

      1. “The author’s institution started an investigation about the case one day after Elsevier retracted the papers”

        That´s not exactly correct. I spent some time working in a nearby research facility and have some friends in the author´s department. They told me that indeed an inquiry board was assembled, but that didn´t happen “one day after” the papers were retracted, but only after the scandal was set – only when the nanoparticles hit the fan (replace “nanoparticles” with some other appropriate material).

  7. There are other obviously fraudulent data in the papers, apart from the NMR… The very same plot, for a calorimetric titration, appears on several papers on the collection – in each one, it is attributed to a different chemical entity.

  8. I want to comment on the subject’s title that mentions a “Brazilian group”. As scientists, we know that the title should be short and informative. Alternatively why not cite “a group of chemists” or “a group of Elsevier’s authors”? What is the correspondence between the fraud and the nationality of the potential fraudsters? Fraud shames international scientific community and I see no reason to believe that the moral and ethics of brazilian scientists differ from that of the international community.

    1. I agree with you Antonio. The press is so superficial sometimes – and i´m a journalist and PhD´s student (research of journalism) and I know how bad is this type of title. This is what I call “unnecessary generalization”. We need to look harder to find truth and it´s easier for some colleagues to use labels to try to call the attention of the public.

  9. Agreed about the ‘Brazilian scientists’ tag; it unfairly implies the fact that they are Brazilian is significant.

  10. “I see no reason to believe that the moral and ethics of brazilian scientists differ from that of the international community.”

    Unfortunately I will have to disagree. I have worked in places both inside and otside Brazil. In my department and institution, the values of ethics and moral of my colleagues are certainly quite different from those of foreign scientists I have known.
    I have seen an awful lot of scientific corruption in Brazil, and many colleagues being persecuted for not partaking of the shameful schemes.

    We have to face the fact that things have to change in Brazi, and this is certainly not an isolated case and maybe not one of the real big ones.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.