After hesitating, Science retracts chemistry paper against authors’ wishes

F1.mediumToday, Science has retracted a 2004 paper that’s been under scrutiny for years, despite the authors’ objections.

This paper has a long backstory: Recently, a report from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Inspector General surfaced that announced the agency had cut off the authors from funding. Last month, editor Marcia McNutt told us that the journal planned to retract the paper as soon as possible. Then, on January 21st, “just as we were going to press with the retraction,” said McNutt, the authors submitted a correction, which Science wanted to take some time to consider.

Now, the paper has a retraction note, against the wishes of authors Bruce Eaton and Dan Feldheim, currently at the University of Colorado.

Here it is the retraction note:

Science is retracting the 7 May 2004 Report “RNA-Mediated Metal-Metal Bond Formation in the Synthesis of Hexagonal Palladium Nanoparticles” by Lina A. Gugliotti, Daniel L. Feldheim, and Bruce E. Eaton. After an investigation into this Report by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Office of Inspector General, NSF did not find that the authors’ actions related to it constituted misconduct. NSF nonetheless concluded that they “were a significant departure from research practices” and “a misrepresentation of data on which a conclusion was based.” In response to the NSF ruling, one of the authors, Daniel L. Feldheim, sent wording for a correction to Science. However, the Editors do not think a correction is appropriate given the concerns raised by the Inspector General’s report about what evidence was available to support the authors’ assertions at the time the paper was published. Hence, Science is issuing this Retraction instead. Author Gugliotti could not be reached for her concurrence in this matter. Authors Feldheim and Eaton do not agree to this Retraction. Science had previously published an Editorial Expression of Concern about the study, on Friday, 22 January, 2015, to alert readers to the fact that serious questions had been raised about the validity of the study’s results.

The paper has been cited 139 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge — once more than when we last reported on it on January 21st.

McNutt told Jeffrey Mervis at Science Insider:

Corrections are for honest errors. We don’t want to do corrections for truly sloppy science.

We asked McNutt about the correction that the authors submitted. She declined to share the wording, but told us:

The authors have steadfastly claimed that the correct protocols for the experiment were later published in follow-up journal articles (hence their claim that no correction was needed). The NSF close-out report found that the original lab notebooks for the Science paper did not document the appropriate lab experiments and controls to assure us that this is indeed what the authors had done at the time that the work was submitted for publication to Science.

McNutt added that the authors simply had to establish they had the correct protocols for the experiment at the time they submitted the Science paper, and provide evidence for that, and the journal would have accepted a correction.

She also told us:

We do not want to cast [aspersions] on the later publications, which may be perfectly fine. And if so, they deserve priority in terms of publication. Hence the need to retract the Science paper rather than correct it based on the later work.

We have been unable to reach Feldheim and Eaton. The retraction follows years of effort by their former colleague Stefan Franzen, who has long been pushing for the record to be corrected.

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11 thoughts on “After hesitating, Science retracts chemistry paper against authors’ wishes”

  1. It’s “cast aspersions” not “cast dispersions”: it sounds like it’s one for Ben Zimmer’s eggcorn database.

  2. It is encouraging when an Editor-in-Chief can be frank and claim that a study is “sloppy”. This is a very encouraging advance in appropriate tone for appropriate occasions.

    Now while the potato is still hot, may I ask Dr. McNutt and the authors a very frank query, one which I in fact asked Dr. Olivier Voinnet just a few days ago with respect to the hundreds of citations of his 7 retracted papers: who will now correct the downstream literature that cited this paper. More specifically, I am of the opinion that 139 errata are required to alert the scientific community, of this “sloppy” work.

    I would be really interested to hear their opinion on how to correct this “downstream” literature.

    1. Agree with JATdS. It is not only the downstream literature but the subsequent successful funding and career to many along the line. You just cannot “undo”. It is an impossible task!

    2. Could you provide some examples of where others haven’t been able to reproduce the key results by Voinnet? I.e. are there actual indications that the conclusions/results of those retracted papers are wrong? I guess failure to reproduce would be the main reason to implement such downstream corrections; otherwise it would be a lot of trouble for very little gain.

      1. “otherwise it would be a lot of trouble for very little gain.”

        Well, one probable source of considerable gain/loss is who gets the credit for the result; if Voinnet’s team did not in fact establish the “key result” in their publication, and another team or teams DID establish it in theirs, then to cite the discredited Voinnet paper is to deprive the members of the other team(s) of recognition, and perhaps of funding, promotion(s), etc., which in addition to their undoubted direct value to the other teams may very well have indirect value to the scientific enterprise (because they are likelier to be able to continue doing good work if they are appropriately funded, promoted, etc., rather than inappropriately underfunded, unpromoted, etc.).

  3. “She also told us:

    ‘We do not want to cast dispersions on the later publications,(…)'”

    Cast aspersions, or cast dispersions?

  4. “We do not want to cast dispersions.” Is “dispersions” a typo for “aspersions”? which can happen to the best of us. Perhaps this comment should be “distracted” err,….. I mean “retracted” or “somethinged”. Cheers.

  5. The same group has published many more papers based on same article for example
    1.RNA-Mediated Control of Metal Nanoparticle Shape J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2005, 127 (50), pp 17814–17818
    2.RNA-Mediated Synthesis of Palladium Nanoparticles on Au Surfaces
    3.Langmuir, 2006, 22 (13), pp 5862–5866
    4.Cooperativity between two selected RNA Pdases in the synthesis of Pdnanoparticles J. Mater. Chem., 2010,20, 8394-8398
    5.Novel methods of inorganic compound discovery and synthesis US 20050136439 A1

    How can these articles be true is they are based on false research ???

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