Note to Self: NEVER Do This

Have you ever accidentally "replied all" to an e-mail on which you intended to reply only to the sender—and included a catty remark or an embarrassing note to your honey? Ahem. Neither have I.

As noted in a blog post at ChemBark, the authors of an article published in a chemistry journal seem to have done something similar, but worse: A note was left in the supporting information that seems to instruct the primary author to fabricate data.

Misconduct aside, this new era of openness may require a period of adjustment during which researchers need to be more self-aware, with a more active internal editor.

The first author of the article, "Synthesis, Structure, and Catalytic Studies of Palladium and Platinum Bis-Sulfoxide Complexes," published online ahead of print in the American Chemical Society (ACS) journal Organometallics, is Emma E. Drinkel of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The online version of the article includes a link to this supporting information file. The bottom of page 12 of the document contains this instruction:

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

We are making no judgments here. We don't know who wrote this, and some commenters have noted that "just make up" could be an awkward choice of words by a non-native speaker of English who intended to instruct his student to make up a sample and then conduct the elemental analysis. Other commenters aren't buying it.

The authors—including corresponding author Reto Dorta, associate professor of chemistry at The University of Western Australia—apparently have not yet commented publicly. (Science Careers sent Dorta an e-mail, but it's the middle of the night in Perth and we've yet to hear anything back). John Gladysz, editor-in-chief of Organometallics, has issued a statement that reads:

Wednesday 07 August
Dear Friends of Organometallics,

Chemical Abstracts alerted us to the statement you mention, which was overlooked during the peer review process, on Monday 05 August. At that time, the manuscript was pulled from the print publication queue. The author has explained to us that the statement pertains to a compound that was ”downgraded” from something being isolated to a proposed intermediate. Hence, we have left the ASAP manuscript on the web for now. We are requiring that the author submit originals of the microanalysis data before putting the manuscript back in the print publication queue. Many readers have commented that the statement reflects poorly on the moral or ethical character of the author, but the broad "retribution" that some would seek is not our purview. As Editors, our "powers" are limited to appropriate precautionary measures involving future submissions by such authors to Organometallics, the details of which would be confidential (ACS Ethical Guidelines, Our decision to keep the supporting information on the web, at least for the time being, is one of transparency and honesty toward the chemical community. Other stakeholders can contemplate a fuller range of responses. Some unedited opinions from the community are available in the comments section of a blog posting:

If you have any criticisms of the actions described above, please do not hesitate to share them with me. Thanks much for being a reader of Organometallics, and best wishes,

John Gladysz

Regardless of how this plays out—even if it turns out to be an innocent mistake—it's a major embarrassment for the laboratory, with the potential to damage careers.

The moral? Well, obviously, you should never order someone in your lab to falsify data, and if you're a junior member of a lab, you shouldn't follow such orders. (It's worth noting that the requested data are not in the supporting information; Emma apparently didn't "just make up" the elemental analysis as she was instructed to do.) Indeed, you probably shouldn't do anything in your lab that you wouldn't be happy for the world to see.

But there's another lesson, too: While Organometallics is a traditionally peer-reviewed journal, we're living in an ever more open scientific world. Some scientists are putting their lab notebooks online, and many more are posting non-peer-reviewed manuscripts, data, and supporting information on various Web sites and repositories, often with no external editing or other quality-control steps.

Hopefully, very few scientists would falsify data, or instruct a protégé to do so. But even a more innocuous mistake, when made public, can be embarrassing and cause problems: Imagine leaving a critical comment about a colleague, or a reviewer, in a document posted online—and then, as in this case, being unable to remove it. Misconduct aside, this new era of openness may require a period of adjustment during which researchers are a little more self-reflective, with a more active internal editor. Just as e-mail made it easier to embarrass yourself with errant online expressions of affection, today's more open science offers the unwary new opportunities for unintentional self-harm.

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