Quantum physicists learn about Heisenberg’s (publishing) uncertainty principle the hard way

tsfcoverAs Werner Heisenberg famously conjectured, you can’t measure an atomic particle’s momentum and position at the same time. But perhaps the principle named for the German physicist and godfather of quantum mechanics should be applied to another important scientific truth: you can’t publish the same article in two different but competing journals.

Just ask a group led by Ted Sargent, a prominent physicist at the University of Toronto. He and his colleagues recently lost a paper in Thin Solid Films — which sounds like it ought to be the name of an indie movie company, dibs! — on quantum dot solar cells. (If those sound familiar to readers of this blog, there’s a good reason. We wrote about the retraction of another quantum dot paper, this one in Nature Photonics, in October of this year.)

Sargent’s article, “Advances in colloidal quantum dot solar cells: The depleted-heterojunction device,” which he wrote with colleagues in Spain and Switzerland, appeared in August 2011. According to the notice:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief and first and corresponding author.

The article was largely a duplication of a paper that had already appeared in ACS Nano, 4 (2010) 3374–3380, http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/nn100335g.

The first and the corresponding authors (Kramer and Sargent) would like to apologize for this administrative error on their part; and further apologize to coauthors Andras G. Pattantyus-Abraham, Aaron R. Barkhouse, Xihua Wang, Gerasimos Konstantatos, Ratan Debnath, Larissa Levina, Ines Raabe, Md.K. Nazeeruddin, and Michael Grätzel, who were not informed of the submission and retraction of this manuscript, and who were not involved in the error that led to the needed retraction.

The paper has not been cited.

The ACS Nano paper was titled “Depleted-Heterojunction Colloidal Quantum Dot Solar Cells.” It was published in May 2010. We note that the order of authors on the two papers has been shuffled a bit, with the first and second names swapping positions between the two articles. Sargent also happens to be a member of the ACS Nano editorial board — and, presumably, was fully in support of an editorial it published earlier this year on the “dangers of self-plagiarism.”

We have lots of questions about this case. First, what was the “administrative” error that led to the redundant submission of a previously published paper and which, in the process, managed to rearrange the first authors and slightly modify the title — which might serve to put some illusory daylight between the two papers? Also, why did Sargent and Kramer fail to inform their coauthors that they had resubmitted the paper? And why didn’t Thin Solid Films catch this during the review/acceptance process when it (we hope) asked for author attestations for the manuscript?

We have attempted to contact Sargent and the journal and will update this post if we learn more. Meanwhile, Paul Weiss, editor of ACS Nano, declined to discuss the specifics of the paper.

7 thoughts on “Quantum physicists learn about Heisenberg’s (publishing) uncertainty principle the hard way”

  1. My conjecture is that, through pejoration, the battered phrase “an administrative error” will acquire more negative connotations it so richly deserves.
    What I find peculiar is that in the retraction notice Kramer and Sargent apologize to the other co-authors for not having informed them about the retraction. It implies that they deliberately kept the others in the dark for as long as possible, that is, they did not merely forget about it via some kind of administrative error. At the time of writing the notice, this could have been easily remedied (just cc: a terse email message) but they opted not to do so. Maybe some of the co-authors still do not know about the retraction.
    And Paul Weiss should have bent over backwards in his effort to discuss the particular case with anybody who cares to listen. After all, this concerns his colleague.

    1. SG may well be onto something here – maybe all these instances of plagiarism reflect higher dimensional papers? Must be good for your CV too, at least until the rather pathetic 3-D world gets caught up in the logic of its low dimensions and calls it plagiarism.

      1. I can’t see this as alternate mappings of a hyperdimensional ur-paper because it’s such a brane-less thing to do.

  2. See, my friends tell me I need to get a TV so I can watch “Downton Abbey.” But it’s posts like this one that make me answer, “But I would have less time for Retraction Watch!”

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