Inventors have a dust up over air sampling device

graphic_amt_cover_homepageTo climate scientist Pieter Tans, a “novel” air sampling device in a recent paper looked a little too familiar. Specifically, like a device that he had invented — the AirCore, which he calls a “tape recorder” for air.

The journal editors came up with a unique solution to the disagreement that followed, which the editor in chief called “rather unclear:” The journal ran an editorial in which both Tans and the authors of the paper contend that their device is unique.

The paper in question, “A novel Whole Air Sample Profiler (WASP) for the quantification of volatile organic compounds in the boundary layer,” was published in Atmospheric Measurement Techniques. It has not been cited, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

It now bears a note, in bold and red: “Please read the Editorial Note before accessing the paper.” 

Here’s how the editorial laid out the case:

The AMT executive editors received a complaint that the method presented in the paper by Mak et al. (2013) was largely based on an earlier invention by Pieter Tans (see e.g., the paper by Karion et al., 2010), but this earlier invention was not mentioned or referenced in the paper by Mak et al. (2013). For the AMT executive editors it is not possible to make a clear decision in this conflict.

Unfortunately, it was also not possible to reach a consensus between the involved parties. This editorial note thus has two aims:

1. to make the readers of the paper by Mak et al. (2013) aware of this conflict;

2. to give both parties the opportunity to present their points of view. The respective statements by Mak et al. and Pieter Tans are given below.

Here is the statement from Pieter P. Tans, who works at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, as it appeared in the editorial:

This paper makes it appear that J. Mak and co-authors invented the novel sampling technique discussed above. That is not the case. I invented this technique in 2002, and after testing it in the lab, on aircraft, and on the road, filed an Invention Disclosure Statement in 2005, and applied for a patent in 2006. It was awarded on 6 October 2009 as US Patent 7.597.014 under the title “System and method for providing vertical profile measurements of atmospheric gases”. I called the device, a very long tube which acts as a “tape recorder” of air, the AirCore. Colleagues in my group as well as myself have given about a dozen presentations, starting in 2005, at meetings including several very well attended sessions at AGU Fall meetings, presenting AirCore results. We also published a paper (Karion et al., 2010) presenting the method, test results in the lab and on aircraft, as well as several profiles. Hundreds of atmospheric scientists have seen AirCore results.

And here’s the statement from the authors, John Mak, Alex Guenther and Thomas Karl, that the journal published:

A system to quickly capture a series of air parcels and then analyze them later dates back at least to the 1990s with Al Cooper’s intermittent sampler that flew on the NCAR C130. Although this work was described at conferences (for example, Davis et al., 1996) it was not described in peer-reviewed literature, and so we did not reference this work in the AMT paper. Subsequent to that, there are a number of other designs for the fast profiling of air, including the WAAS (Elliott Atlas’ system, described in multiple publications). In contrast to the WASP (the system we describe in the AMT paper) and the NCAR design from the early 1990s, the AirCore design is limited to sampling vertical profiles of air that begin at high altitudes. The WASP can take horizontal or vertical whole air samples. In addition, the AirCore is only capable of determining rough vertical distributions of long-lived gases; the WASP is designed for measuring very low concentrations of reactive species with very high spatial accuracy, and the method corrects for flow regime and position using a pulsed tracer system. The AirCore is a closedend tube, which means it is a vessel; the WASP is a flowthrough open system. An additional major difference is that the WASP is capable of disjunct eddy covariance measurements following the general concepts developed in the 1990s but it is considerably more advanced and flexible than that earlier design. We believe that it would be appropriate to reference the AirCore system and to describe the substantial differences between these two systems. However, it is certainly not the case that the WASP “is directly based on AirCore” as has been asserted.

Thomas Wagner, the chief executive editor of the journal, told us why the disagreement was hard to solve:

The case you are referring to was the first of that kind in AMT.
That case does not constitute plagiarism (which would have made the case easy), but it deals with a further development of an existing method without proper referencing. Because of this rather unclear situation, the AMT executive editors addressed the issue in different steps:
a) both parties were asked to express their points of view
b) both parties were urged to find a compromise and to publish a joint ‘corrigendum’
c) since this was not possible, the executive editors published an editorial note. This editorial note provides a short summary of the issue and contains the points of view of both parties

Wagner explained why the journal settled on the editorial note as a solution:

This editorial note has three main functions:
a) to make the readers of the manuscript aware of this conflict
b) to give both parties the possibility to express their points of view.
c) to allow further publications about this technique to make proper referencing.

I feel that in this case this was the most appropriate way to deal with the conflict. Please note that in their comment, the authors of the manuscript agree that a reference to the papers on the AirCore system would have been appropriate. In that sense, the issue was in fact resolved.

Tans told us he’s “not entirely satisfied with the resolution:”

I was not asking for a retraction, but for an acknowledgement that they were not the first to come up with what they called “novel”.  My working hypothesis remains that they did engage in a form of plagiarism. They could have said “Thank you, we did not know that you had already invented something very similar”, and acknowledge it in a comment. Instead, they became defensive. They talked about alleged shortcomings of my invention, which were factually not true, They also mentioned prior sampling systems as being very similar. Also that is not true, the other systems were traditional systems containing multiple flasks, valves, tubing, and a gas handling manifold.  Although I am glad that the editors did write their comment, I am not entirely satisfied with the resolution.

We have reached out to first author of the original paper, John Mak, who works at Stony Brook University. We’ll update this post if we hear back.

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