Over a decade later, Orvig discovered a pivotal error in the paper: The authors had misidentified the compound.
Orvig, a professor of chemistry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, told us:
It was an honest mistake that we discovered in the last couple of years while trying to re-purpose the ligand (the title compound) for a new project.
Orvig explained that the issue first came to light a few years ago, in 2014 or 2015. Orvig had asked his PhD student, David Weekes, to re-examine several promising compounds the lab had synthesized in the past. But when Weekes—now a postdoctoral fellow in Orvig’s lab—repeated the methods from the 2002 paper, he was only able to create a molecule that was about half the size.
In November 2016, Orvig and his team contacted the journal to explain the mistake and submitted a new paper that corrected the literature.
The authors retract this article on the basis that all of the characterization data were consistent with the proposed structure of the ligand being a 2:2 product of the reactants, but subsequent work showed that in fact it is a 1:1 product. Thus, all the solution chemistry and interpretations in the original publication were based on an incorrect assumption of the ligand structure. The corrected structure and related data are being published concurrently with this retraction notice, in an article entitled “Di- and Trivalent Metal-Ion Solution Studies with the Phosphinate-Containing Heterocycle DEDA-(PO)”, DOI: 10.1021/acs.inorgchem.7b01117.
The original article was published on January 31, 2002 and was retracted on August 15, 2017.
The now-retracted paper has been cited 13 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.
Here’s the recent article “Di- and Trivalent Metal-Ion Solution Studies with the Phosphinate-Containing Heterocycle DEDA-(PO),” published in August, which details the correct structure and how the researchers discovered their error.
Anatomy of a molecule
Orvig told us that, back in the early 2000s, “we had a hell of a time characterizing the compound because we couldn’t grow crystals of it.” The team had relied on different, less precise methods for identifying the compound.
Weekes, however, had better luck growing crystals. And, according to the new paper, the crystal structure “proved unambiguously” that the molecule reported in 2002 was incorrect.
After contacting the journal about the error, Orvig says he and the editors discussed the best course of action. Ultimately, because “pretty much everything in old paper is wrong,” Orvig said, they agreed that a retraction was the best option, and the journal published the new paper.
Orvig also explained that the smaller compound reported in the new paper doesn’t have the same therapeutic potential as the larger one described in the 2002 paper. The compound needs to be large enough to encase a radioactive metal and deliver the metal — known for its therapeutic properties — to the bone to treat bone disorders. If the molecule is too small, it can’t wrap around the metal. Orvig explained:
It would be equivalent to grabbing a marble with your hand and completely encasing it in your palm versus trying to grab an American football.
We asked the journal whether it would have published the paper in 2002 with the different, less potentially useful structure. The editor-in-chief of Inorganic Chemistry, William B. Tolman, chair of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota, told us:
Your question is a difficult one to answer definitively at this juncture, but my sense is that the answer would be yes, the journal likely would have published the paper with the correct structure back then.
Given that the journal retracted the 2002 paper and replaced it with a corrected version, we asked Tolman if he would consider this case an example of a retract and replace. Retraction and replacement has become an increasingly popular option for some journals to correct honest, but pervasive mistakes. Tolman said that although the journal doesn’t really have that specific category of paper:
…essentially, this is what it is: a retraction, and then a paper that corrects the original work (which was NOT in error due to some ethical issue).
It’s important that we could correct the literature. I wonder how many people might have tried to make the ligand, failed, and moved onto something else.
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