Chemistry paper in Science earns expression of concern for unreliable data

science 62714A 2011 paper in Science has been subjected to an expression of concern and has led to an investigation by the Texas university where the work was done.

Here’s the expression of concern, signed by Science editor in chief Marcia McNutt (and paywalled):

In the 16 September 2011 issue, Science published the Report “Unclicking the click: Mechanically facilitated 1,3-dipolar cycloreversions” by J. N. Brantley et al. (1).

After concerns were raised in an e-mail to the editors from a reader, the corresponding author supervised a comprehensive evaluation of all data presented in the original manuscript by tracing all figures back to their raw data files. In over 50% of the figure parts, the authors deemed the data unreliable due to uncertainty regarding the origin of data or the manner in which the data were processed. A confidential investigation that is relevant to these concerns is currently being conducted by the University of Texas at Austin.

Pending the conclusion of the investigation, Science is publishing this Editorial Expression of Concern to alert our readers to the fact that serious questions have been raised about the validity of findings in the Brantley et al. paper.

Chemical & Engineering News has some details after talking to corresponding author Christopher W. Bielawski:

Bielawski tells C&EN that a former group member, whom he declined to identify, came forward and admitted to manipulating data in the Science paper. Bielawski says that his lab “successfully repeated the experiments in question and found that the conclusions of the report were unchanged.” He has submitted a correction to Science to address the concerns. Neither Brantley nor Wiggins could be reached for comment.

The paper has been cited 75 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

15 thoughts on “Chemistry paper in Science earns expression of concern for unreliable data”

  1. No idea if it’s relevant to the story, but wow that is a freakin’ humongous lab group! 7 post-docs, 16 other people with degrees (grad students or tech’s) plus some undergrads. If everyone gets a 1 hr. meeting with the PI’, and assuming a 50 hour week, that takes the PI through Wednesday lunchtime in personnel meetings alone without any other work being done. The more likely scenario is people get to meet the PI for less than an hour a week, which is sad. Nevertheless, they published 35 papers in 2013 and 10 already so far this year. How can any reasonable person possibly claim to be on top of such a huge volume of material?

    The more times this happens, the more it becomes clear, mega-labs are bad for scientific integrity. They’re a breeding ground for non-adherence to best practices (in terms of record-keeping, proof reading, etc). In a smaller lab these mistakes would have never made it past the internal review stage before being sent out for publication.

    1. Yes I really find this sort of lab & science distasteful. As a postdoc in a lab about half this size, 90% of my meetings with my PI are cancelled. Which leads to him not understanding my work and submitting papers that he couldn’t tell you a single detail about. Even then, the situation is bad for everybody.
      When the lab is huge and found to have committed any misconduct, I say shut it down and give their grants to new young investigators. There are thousands of them/us begging for the chance to do some real science and not lie about it.

  2. “successfully repeated the experiments in question and found that the conclusions of the report were unchanged.” Whenever I see this statement from the lead/ senior author, I am inclined to think that the lead/ senior author was aware of the conclusions of the study even before the experiments were done. Someone had to just find a way of getting there, some how and anyhow.
    Apart from laziness to do the experiment, I am unable to come up with a reasonable excuse for fabricating data if the experimental results confirmed the conclusions.

  3. How dare these journals demand payment for retractions and “expressions of concern” that expose failures in their review process?

  4. My experience in a lab half that size was never having meetings with the PI. (None. He did weekly group meeting and the meeting was a summary of a person’s work.) His name was on all my papers, but he had no scientific or even editorial contribution. Nice guy, though.

  5. Cross-Posted from In the Pipeline:

    Taking a look at the paper, Figures S5 and S6 are both strange and illogical. In S5, the one hour sonicated trace (green) has the same noise pattern as the unsonicated trace (black). It looks as if someone just shifted the black trace to the desired retention time and then colored it green.

    The figure supposedly describes the fragmentation of one of the larger triazole polymers under sonication. If these data were not fabricated, the result is very strange because it visually implies that the polymer breaks twice, once at one hour and again after two hours. But the 2nd break would not happen at the triazoles, which would be unselective and contrary to the claims of the rest of the manuscript.

    The authors also seem to realize that such a result would be nonsensical, because Figure S6 tries to rationalize the green 1 hour breaking trace as a convolution of broken and intact chains, with a peak fitting to go along with it.

    The peak fitting makes no sense, because the green peak is supposedly made up of components of the red and black peaks, which would seem impossible given that it has the same width as the original black peak.

    Furthermore, the obvious thing to do would be to analyze samples sonicated for other times between 0-2 hours, so as to observe the gradual change of the black peak to the red peak. I would expect the resulting traces to look broad and/or bimodal until near the end of the fragmentation process, but at very least there would be a continuous change in peak retention time.

    These absent experiments illustrate the PI’s poor oversight of the project, even if he was unaware of the problems with the data.

  6. The second author has been removed from the webpage of the group which she had joined there.

    This PI perjured himself on the witness stand in a recent contact lens case between Johnson & Johnson and Rembrandt Vision Care. See

    Bielawski recently moved to Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology:

  7. “He has submitted a correction to Science to address the concerns.”

    As of Dec 3, 2014 there is no correction on the Science webpage for this paper. Does it really take more than 5 months for Science to publish a correction?

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