With great blogging power… comes great responsibility

Click the link for a great article from Chemistry World, which discusses some recent news of fraud and false data in chemistry journals.

A major talking point in the article is the recent outrage regarding a paper published in Organometallics by Reto Dorta. I was aware of this myself because my supervisor found it so shocking that she e-mailed us all with the supplementary information so that we could witness it ourselves. It really does beggar belief – somehow the paper had been published online, even though this line was present underneath the experimental for a particular compound in the supplementary information:

“Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis…”

This discovery has sent shockwaves around the chemistry community, and has no doubt shattered Dorta’s reputation. It would be a little embarrassing for the editors if it was simply a case of missing NMR data which the author had forgotten to include, but the apparent admittance of falsifying elemental analysis data is very serious, and will call into question all of Dorta’s results and publications.

Not much more can be said as Dorta has refused to comment further and the issue is still under investigation, but whether there is any sort of reasonable excuse for this or not, journals will no doubt seriously question any manuscripts submitted by him and his group in the future. It is unfortunate for his students who may have to carry this with them throughout their careers, even though their data might be impeccable.

The article goes on to describe cases of altered TEM images and doctored NMR spectra, with peaks being erased entirely in order to hide them.

These examples all point to a worrying trend of pressure for results and publications leading to students, post-docs and academics feeling the need to falsify data. In a world where research jobs are getting more and more competitive, pressure to publish and to be more known to the academic community is greater than ever, This is no excuse for producing false data, but does offer some sort of explanation.

The article rounds up by calling into question the role of popular chemistry bloggers in exposing such manuscripts before they can be properly investigated. Students such as Emma, mentioned in the quote above, have their reputations destroyed beyond repair before they can explain or defend themselves, and guilt is presumed before the incident has been looked into.

While I appreciate avid chemistry bloggers discovering these issues and bringing them to attention, I do agree that the proper channels should be used and these cases should be investigated thoroughly before a possible innocent name is tarnished forever. Sometimes, bloggers are so keen to reveal the truth (which is perfectly understandable) that they may forget whose lives may be affected by the aftermath.

Now, the pressure is on editors and referees of these journals to check papers thoroughly, to ensure images aren’t tampered with, data isn’t left out, and that embarrassing slip-ups in supplementary information are dealt with before they go to publication. It’s worrying that these papers have been slipping through the net, and more needs to be done by people at all levels, from the academic instilling good ethics into their students, to the editors putting these manuscripts in for publication.

If you’re interested in this topic, you can find an article demonstrating how publishers can detect falsified images on the Chemistry World website, here.

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