Why don’t the raw data match what was reported in a chemistry paper?

Chemistry researchers in China have retracted their 2016 paper after reporting that the raw data did not match what they presented in the article.

The authors were attempting to develop a method to produce large amounts of a high-quality two-dimensional form of antimonene, a prized crystal structure that has been notoriously difficult to synthesize reliably.

They were successful, according to the paper, achieving “a large quantity of few-layer antimonene” and demonstrating its “exact atomical structure” and properties.

But they may have spoken too soon.

According to the retraction notice, “the reported synthesis of antimonene is not adequately supported by atomic force microscopy (AFM) data.”

So how did that discrepancy occur?

The corresponding author Haibo Zeng, director of the Institute of Optoelectronics & Nanomaterials at Nanjing University of Science and Technology in China, told us:

The heigh[t] statistic[s] is not accurate. But the main conclusions in that work are right.

The height statistic is “based on many AFM pictures,” Zeng told us. Although Zeng did not clarify how the problem occurred, he explained:

[T]he method is OK
[T]he size of products is not very correct.

The failure of raw data to match what’s reported can raise concerns of manipulation, although other explanations are possible. When we asked Zeng if the data were manipulated, he answered:

[T]his project has been implemented for more than 2 years, several member[s] did AFM measurement, finally analyzed by the first author.

Unfortunately, the retraction notice doesn’t clarify much. Here’s the notice for “Few-Layer Antimonene: Large Yield Synthesis, Exact Atomical Structure, and Outstanding Optical Limiting,” published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in October and retracted in February:

All authors retract this article on the basis that the reported synthesis of antimonene is not adequately supported by atomic force microscopy (AFM) data. The AFM data presented in the manuscript does not match the raw data. The article was first published on October 11, 2016 as a Just Accepted manuscript and was retracted on February 27, 2017. The PDF content of the original article accompanies this Retraction as Supporting Information.

We reached out to editor-in-chief Peter Stang, and managing editor Sonja Krane. We will update the post if we learn more.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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