“Stupid, it should not be done that way”: Researcher explains how duplications led to a retraction

Rienk van Grondelle, via VU

More than two years ago, we wrote about a retraction for duplication in Biophysical Journal prompted by an email from pseudonymous whistleblower Clare Francis. That post generated a robust discussion, including one comment from someone calling himself or herself “Double Dutch.”

This past weekend, the last author of that paper, Rienk van Grondelle, left a lengthy response to that comment in which he explained how the duplication happened. We’ve confirmed that it was van Grondelle who left the comment, which we reproduce here in full (we’ve added paragraph breaks for readability):

First of all, I will reply with my real name, not something fake. Second, this is not an attempt to excuse myself or my co-authors, it is a record of how things sometimes go in serious science where real discoveries are being made.

Around the turn of the previous century I initiated the kind of single molecule experiments as described in the retracted paper. The idea was to watch environmental (pH, temp, salt, detergent) induced transitions at the level of a single photosynthetic complex, an underlying idea was that maybe such an environmentally controlled function might be a basis for for instance the regulation of photosynthesis (anybody who has taken the trouble to follow my scientific career since then, may have noticed that indeed we have a lot of experimental proof that this is indeed the case).

When we started these experiments around 2000 they were unique in the world, nobody had done anything similar. We built equipment, we developed a procedure to study photosynthetic complexes at the single molecule level, while at the same time keeping them alive, we developed software to analyze the data, we extended and applied our excitonic models to interpret the results. All of this was only and uniquely done by us, we were the only research team in the world doing such experiments. I remember going to Gordon conferences and showing these results and blowing an audience away.

The results of this work were fantastic and laid the basis for what I and many others are doing today. When in 2003/4 we were in the process of reporting our first results on the peripheral photosynthetic light-harvesting complex of photosynthetic purple bacteria for biophysical journal, we realized that these findings were unique, we were aware of some possible competition and we decided to make a short version of the manuscript meant for biophysical journal (where i have published and am publishing much of my best scientific work), this was published as an accelerated paper in biochemistry and later the much extended manuscript in biophysical journal was published and later retracted.

For anyone who has any idea about (1) the uniqueness of these experiments, (2) the complexity of the conditions under which they were performed reading the two papers would make it immediately clear that the biochemistry paper is a short, condensed version of the biophysical journal version. Yes we should have been more careful with the precise text (but would it have changed anything to the meaning), yes we could have produced ‘original’ figures (but would it have changed anything to the discovery), yes we should have made cross-references/self-citations, but maybe we forgot.

Stupid, it should not be done that way, but disqualifying this research as just copying and copying and copying is not right. I and the people who did this research with me at that time are very proud of this work, it is absolutely unique, there is nothing even remotely similar and for that reason biophysical journal should have been proud of this article and these discoveries and have allowed me to explain the history of this work.

We appreciate van Grondelle’s frankness and can only hope that more researchers will tell us the stories behind their retractions.

26 thoughts on ““Stupid, it should not be done that way”: Researcher explains how duplications led to a retraction”

  1. This illustrates why our publishing model is broken and we need to operate in a new way. For example, if a paper was built up, in the open, the fact that Rienk van Grondelle’s group were the first would be obvious. The “paper in progress” would accrue citations, comment and so on.

    1. This also illustrates why non-practicing scientists in the filed in question should be careful about what they say on these issues.

  2. What would the scientific community expect from coercing non English speaking authors to publish in a foreign language? Think for a while of a hypothetical where American scientists are compelled to publish their work in french for example? How competent they would be in paraphrasing and paraphrasing and paraphrasing ….. others ideas?

    “Publish or perish in English” is the root cause behind all retractions and misconduct!

    1. But if you want other scientists to be able to read your work you will need to communicate it to them in a language they can understand. It’s all very well to suggest that everyone publish in their native language, but then you are just coercing everyone to learn half a dozen or more languages if they want to keep abreast of developments in their field. Isn’t it better to just get everyone to learn one specific language?

      You can argue that using English puts native speakers at an advantage, which is true. Perhaps we should use a dead or constructed language instead? Go back to the 17th century and publish everything in Latin? After all it was good enough for Newton…

      No, that was not a serious suggestion, but picking a single common language for any kind of multi-national communication is a necessary evil. Unless you want to go the EU route and pay massive amounts of money to translate from every language into every other language.

      1. ” Isn’t it better to just get everyone to learn one specific language?”

        I agree, the issue is that most foreign scientists have not learned that one specific language well by the time they are expected to publish. Mind you, mastering another language starts very early in life, before each individual figures out what they want to do for living.

    2. I think competent translators and revisers can remedy any difficulties with the language, and also eventually there is always some more proficient coauthor to help with that with not so much difficulty. Copying without making this clear does seem to have another deep root elsewhere.

  3. Am I the only one to think that this response at this time must have been prompted/inspired by the (self) plagiarism scandal involving fellow VU researcher Nijkamp?

    Ivan, have you asked Rienk whether there is a connection? And whether this was his own initiative or if he was asked by VU university to respond, even after two years?

  4. Sorry, but van Grondelle’s response basically says, “We published our data quickly to avoid being scooped and then published it again in extended format”. And you just can’t do that. That’s like saying that the theatrical cut and directors cuts are different movies.

    And from that post, I doubt that English as a second language is really an issue for van Grondelle.

    1. Exactly! Every other researcher has to deal with the great debate of A) publish rapidly is less prestigious rapid publication journal or B) get the long form ready to go.

      I have to say though… this response is very troubling because:
      “we realized that these findings were unique, we were aware of some possible competition and we decided to make a short version of the manuscript meant for biophysical journal”

      He then goes on to say how unique and awesome they were… so I’m confused: If your findings were so revolutionary and special… then why the concern about “competition?”

      Further, if there was someone who was competing with you and your report wasn’t ready… then you should have LOST the race.

      Basically: I worked really hard, but I still didn’t win, so I cheated, and now I tell you a sob story.

      The publishing model isn’t broken… it gave him two good options: A) wait until the full story was ready and publish it in full form or B) publish a version that wasn’t complete and ready and hope that it doesn’t get torn apart.

      1. …or publish it as a short version, properly tagged as a preliminary publication, and then publish the whole story, making it clear that it is extending on the previous preliminary publication. The issue was lack of transparency, and indeed this seemed to have been based on personal interests.

        1. Yep, that’s also fine and comes with the likely caveat: and be willing to accept publication in a less prestigious journal that is willing to publish a story that’s already out there in short form. He almost certainly published the way he did because he wanted BOTH the high profile paper and the “we did it first” paper, which I assume were mutually exclusive if done the right way.

      2. Dear QAQ: When you do real science then after a few years of hard work the PhD-student or PostDoc involved discovers something. Sometimes this extends what you already know, sometimes it may be a major step forward. Then you report these results at international conferences, you start to write serious scientific papers, which is what we did and do. In this particular case, after having shown these results at various international meetings, of course at some point we realized that anybody with the sample, a laser, a microscope and a CCD could scoop us within a month, publish whatever they found on the Archives and claim to be the first. And please do not tell me that this does not happen, I know many examples, maybe a site ‘copy watch’ or ‘scoop watch’ would be much more interesting than ‘retraction watch’. So this is why we decided to have a fast publication of our OWN results first and then publish the full story and of course that is precisely what happened. And dear QAQ, the story was not torn apart, not then, not now, it is fully alive, but we have made major steps on this subject, ‘how protein dynamics can control protein function’ and we will submit a paper soon to a top-journal. Largely thanks to the discoveries described in the retracted paper, demonstrating the great nonsense of all of this

        Rienk van Grondelle

    2. “And you just can’t do that”. Most papers published in journals such as Nature are followed by a substantially longer paper elsewhere with details of the methods etc. The analogy is flawed. It is more like the difference between a trailer and the actual movie.

  5. Self plagiarism in text, depending on its extent and relevance, might be just an issue of limited English language capabilities, but publishing the very same figures in two research papers…that is a big no no.

    1. Self-plagiarism is never an excuse, even with language deficiencies. Those who commit self-plagiarism know what they are doing. Don’t be fooled (or tricked) by excuses. They just do it because they are either lazy, or lack the skills to address the issue. But, excuses are excuses and there is no excuse for the lack of ethics, no matter who you are, or what your mother tongue is. Repetition of one’s own text, textual duplication, is only one form of self-plagiarism. I do agree with your assessment that data, figure and table duplication probably rank as first tier, and may be text as second tier, but still tiers 1 and 2 are on the unethical side of the ethics/lack of ethics divide. Intent or excuses do not need to be proved. A fact is a fact. However, quantification is essential. COPE, WAME, ICMJE, SCE, ORI, publishers, and most importantly scientists MUST reach a consensus or we will continue with this endless debate and circus.

      1. What we are discussing here is not whether a literal (or extensive) reproduction of a text intending that it was new, either by the original author or by a different one, is acceptable or not, because it is obviously NOT acceptable. As I said before the argument is different: Nobody remembers the wording of the first description of the DNA structure by Watson and Crick (that is, how they described it), but everybody remembers what they were describing. However, many will remember Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, event if they have no clue a war in Crimea ever happened.
        In any case, I definitely agree with you that a consensus on this matter needs to be reached.

  6. However, it is just self inflicted damage, a stupid decision, as van Grondelle himself states, that put in the spot respected scientists. In this case, the quality of the science was never questioned, and this is important.

  7. Wow. The most disliked comment I have ever made.
    So, readers seem to agree that publishing in a foreign language under duress ( under the penalty of loosing a job) has not led to instances of plagiarism and research misconduct?

    1. aceil, I am not amongst the thumbs up/downers, but I do not feel that the ‘foreign language argument/excuse’ is ‘apt’ here.

      I certainly agree that duress to perform can lead to plagiarism and misconduct. As a teacher I regularly see students who struggle with English resort to plagiarism as a means to cope with the demands placed on them.However, these are generally not the students who aspire an academic career, and I rarely hear of this phenomenon (plagiarism to hide the inability to meet curricular demands) amongst Dutch students.

      The Dutch are generally well educated in English, and for nearly all Dutch academics writing (academic) English is second nature. I’d say that in our minds, acquiring a certain fluency in English is part of becoming an academic, no more, no less. Therefore I do not feel that your argument applies to this case.

      There is another reason to think that foreign language may create (the opportunity for) self-plagiarism, namely when articles are written, translated, and published in both a foreign language and English. This also is not common practice in the Netherlands. We hardly have a culture of Dutch language peer review, and many of us will never publish even once in Dutch (at least not in my field, can hardly imagine that this is much different in Nijkamp’s field). Certainly, some of us will contribute to articles in news media, lay literature, or media aimed at professionals (e.g. clinical practice), but those contributions would rarely be connected to self-plagiarism in or from academic articles (or at least, I think they should not?).

      Actually, in a recent rebuttal, Nijkamp suggests that the accusations against his practices were in large part based on comparisons between articles in peer-reviewed academic journals and lesser ‘products”, such as conference abstracts, posters, articles for lay audience, etc. I do not know enough details to state whether this is true.

      That is not to say that self-plagiarism due to translation never happens, nor that we (they?) should not think about language barriers in international academia. I recently read an article offered for publication that was a (pretty terrible) translation of an PhD thesis chapter originally written in Greek. Academics in countries were it is common practice to write dissertations in a mother tongue should reconsider this practice, as I’d feel that requiring students to become apt at (academic) English gives them a far better shot at engaging in the international academic community. Yet, this does not apply to the Dutch situation, were master and PhD dissertations in Dutch are rare (and if this happens, it is usually due to the topic being so specific that Dutch is required, e.g. Dutch literature).

      All in all, I certainly do not feel that the language argument can be offered as an excuse for any (self)plagiarism that Nijkamp may have conducted.

      1. I obviously lost track of which case we were talking about, messing up the Nijkamp case with Grondelle’s situation (which, I feel I must add, is certainly less grave. The two cases should not be connected too carelessly). The gist of my post still stands, however. I certainly not feel that language barrier can be used as an argument to defend any self-plagiarism by Dutch researchers. In addition, the discussion should perhaps focus on defining self-plagiarism, as there certainly is a grey area that is threaded upon but both English natives and non-natives.

  8. Aceil, certainly not in a significant amount. You claim that “Publish or perish in English” is the root cause behind all retractions and misconduct!” So, fabrication and falsification of results, which accounts for the vast majority of retractions, would not happen if you report those data in your own language? So, plagiarism from researchers with English as mother language is, according to you, not possible?
    Evidently, the tendency to “borrow” phrases and paragraphs from other people papers for your own papers is directly proportional to your lack of skills in English. However, while in literature wording is key, in science, is the idea behind the wording was is key. So I think it is important to take this differences into account when defining plagiarism in science .

    1. Thank you. I should have stated that ………the root cause of some retractions…….

      Specific wording is indeed a powerful skill !

  9. Well, certainly not in this case. We simply wanted to have a quick, sexy fast report of these results in the public scientific literature. And to be honest, I think this is still a good idea, it is good that your scientific community gets to know your newest results and ideas asap, but in the process more care should be taken than we did at the time. Although, as I stated, it would not have changed anything in terms of the scientific content and what we wanted to communicate

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