Paper retracted because images “were, in fact, electron microscopy results of totally different catalysts”

catcommA group of chemical engineers in China has retracted their article on photocatalysts after alerting the journal that images in the paper did not show what they’d reported.

The article, which appeared in Catalysis Communications earlier this year, was titled “Synthesis and characterization of novel Cu2O/PANI composite photocatalysts with enhanced photocatalytic activity and stability,” and was written by Xiufang Wang, Guangmei Chen and Jun Zhang of the School of Materials and Chemical Engineering at Anhui University of Architecture, in Hefei.

Here’s the retraction notice:

This article has been retracted at the request of the authors.

The authors had included images in the original article, which were, in fact, electron microscopy results of totally different catalysts. They are no longer able to support their discussion and conclusions given in the original article.

Now, we’re inclined to believe this is an example of honest error and a laudable effort to correct the record. But the wording of the notice leaves room for other possibilities.

James Goodwin Jr., the top editor of the journal, told us that although he didn’t handle the article directly:

Apparently, it was retracted by the authors themselves after realizing their mistake in using electron micrographs of the wrong catalysts in the interpretation.  I assume that they checked the documentation labeling the micrographs or spotted the error from follow-up study of the correct catalysts.  Without proper labeling, it could be possible to pick the wrong micrographs to interpret, if the group was studying a lot of structurally similar catalysts.  It may have been a mistake made by a junior researcher (perhaps a student) caught by the senior author after the paper had already been posted on-line.  Hard to say without knowing the details …  In any case, the authors were correct to immediately retract their paper as soon as an error was spotted rather than let the error stand and pollute the literature with inaccuracies.  Once the error was discovered, not retracting it would have been an ethical violation.

Jean-Francois Carpentier, the editor who did work on the retraction, told us:

We asked for more details but they came back twice with a short message that they used wrong electron micrographs. Hard to speculate if there is anything else behind.

The paper has yet to be cited, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

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