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A Slow, Slow Retraction

Some readers may recall this post from 2015, which details problems with a natural product isolation paper in PLOS ONE. The compound, named Xinghaiamine A by the authors, was. . .well, let’s say extremely unlikely, and I think anyone who looks at the structure in that earlier post will agree. And that spans several levels of unlikeliness – at some point, there’s no more forehead for your eyebrows to crawl up, you know?

And that was before people starting having a look at the NMR spectra that were presented as evidence. You can see a blowup of one 2D spectrum in that earlier post, and a middle-school student could tell you that it is a crude cut-and-paste job. Faked, doctored, altered: it’s junk, and after seeing it no one competent could believe the paper’s structural assignment or vouch for the credibility of its authors.

A clear-cut case! I and others alerted the editorial staff at PLOS ONE. My own email laid out the situation, and concluded like this:

. . .I cannot see any other good explanation for the state that these spectra are in – they appear to me to not only have been faked, but faked quite incompetently.

Please have a look at this situation and see what conclusions you come to. And please, if possible, check to see who reviewed this manuscript for you. I cannot imagine a synthetic organic or natural products chemist letting the proposed structure in this work pass, even were the spectra not manipulated. But the rather egregious doctoring of the data makes this even harder to defend from a reviewer’s standpoint. Thanks very much!

Well, to my surprise, I had a reply from the journal just recently, informing me that the paper has indeed been retracted and apologizing for the delay. Retraction Watch noted this here. According to the retraction notice, the journal requested the raw data from the authors, who did not provide it and instead requested that the paper be withdrawn. Why this took three years is what both the Retraction Watch people and I are wondering.

As for those NMR spectra, the notice says that the corresponding author “indicated that spectral images from NMR analyses of different purification batches had been combined in error when deducing the reported structures“. Why yes. It is indeed an error to use image-editing software to cut and paste peaks and assemble a spectrum. If your NMR spectra from different batches do not agree with each other, you don’t get to glue the pieces together into what you think one should look like.

The corresponding author is at the Dalian University of Technology in China, with other authors coming from Dalian Medical University, the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, and Myongji University in Korea. Let’s hope that standards are higher there than they were in 2015.

16 comments on “A Slow, Slow Retraction”

  1. Lambchops says:

    “indicated that spectral images from NMR analyses of different purification batches had been combined in error when deducing the reported structures“

    Sounds plausible. Many a time have I accidentally dragged a fid into an already open window containing a spectra in ACD and seen the spectra merge before my very eyes.

    Now excuse me while I unintentionally kick of my modelling career by wearing my underwear as a hat.

  2. anchor says:

    Better late than never! It is begging question and who were the reviewers? If we bring shame to authors by retraction why spare the reviewers and am dead serious.

    1. Anon says:

      It appears the reviewer was a biologist rather than an organic/natural product chemist who would understand structural assignments… it would suggest PLOS One did not select a suitable person, or they should have chosen two!

  3. Thomas Williamson says:

    I guess you’ve seen this related paper which must also be questionable:

    1. Old Timer says:

      Nope, that one is spot on–no NMR data 🙂

  4. Isidore says:

    I am not sure I understand. Was this a crude cut-and-paste job, which suggests an attempt (however incompetent) to deceive, or was it an honest mistake of accidentally merging unrelated spectra and then “interpreting” the resulting mess. The figure in Derek’s original post does look like it was altered with some sort of image manipulation software, which is either not very good or the person using it was not very good. This business of calling a spade anything but a spade is not a good way to try and rood fraud out of science.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      “Merging unrelated spectra” in this way is not actually a thing, though, to my knowledge. So I think this is just as bad as it looks, unfortunately. . .

      1. Isidore says:

        Thanks, last time I used any kind of NMR software was in graduate school, eons ago

  5. Uncle Al says:

    The spectrum identifies as what it should be, given feelings. The simple solution is to evolve a crystal structure stereogram and publish from within New York State. Real science, the science of Lysenko and Potemkin, respects feelings and social necessities,
    … Luce Irigaray sources physics’ defects.
    …”We ask the question of whether one’s political preferences are manifested in the hand used while cleansing one’s posterior”

  6. The Iron Chemist says:

    “Are you shocked Mr. Williams?”

    “Only at how sloppy your man works.”

    1. IronB says:

      Spectra do not hit back.

  7. Former deekheed says:

    Im going to be fully honest with you grad students. Science has told us 1) there is no god 2) the universe cannot be understood on the timescale before the galaxy burns up. Take those facts for what they may mean to you, but dont believe it when your so called mentor offers anything related to those points. This approach worked for me, and life is good.

  8. Thomas says:

    There are some instances where the reviewers’ comments were not taken into account by the authors before re-submission and subsequent publication. I wonder if this could be the case here. I am waiting for comments from the Editor of BMCL about such a case – 3 reviewers out of 4 pointed out some nonsensical paragraph that still got published. Has any reviewer here experienced this?

  9. Me says:

    The 3-yr wait for retraction presumably allowed the authors to get tenure?

  10. R. says:

    Regarding the comments about blaming the reviewers. Ok, i havn’t looked at this specific paper, it sounds like it was so egregious that the paper should not have gotten through. But I’m just thinking, and I know everyone has a different situation, but I review papers in my free time. I don’t review at work–I work long hours under intense pressure to deliver against project objectives (even writing my own papers is hard to find time for). At home, I’ve got young kids and the daily chores of life, and I carve out only a little free time for myself. When I review manuscript, I’m using this free time. I don’t get paid, I don’t get any extrinsic reward. But I’ll do it as a community service, and I put a lot of time into it. Most papers have aspects that are in my area of expertise as well as things I’m familiar but not expert with. So I’ve caught a lot of faulty reasoning or sloppy mistakes, but I’m sure there are some things I let through that I shouldn’t have. In an ideal world I’d go back and dig into things I’m not familiar with and go over every detail with a fine-toothed comb, but we don’t live in that world. If we demand that level of effort from reviewers, I think it will be even harder for journals to find enough willing volunteers.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Reviewing mss: “But I’ll do it as a community service …” Reminds me of another story. I think A J Birch wrote this about his interaction with R B Woodward. ‘Quotes’ are approximate only. Birch was complaining about so much work and so many responsibilities, including refereeing papers. RBW asked why he does that. AJB invoked the community service argument and reciprocity: ‘After all, others take their time to review my submissions, so I should give back.’ To which RBW replied, ‘My papers don’t need to be reviewed.’ 🙂

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