Skip to main content

The Dark Side

A Retraction, Ten Years Later

Here’s an odd thing, noted by a reader of this site. Organic Letters has a retraction of a paper in the Baldwin group at Oxford, “Biomimetic Synthesis of Himbacine”.

This Letter has been retracted, as it was found that (a) spectra of the linear precursor, compound 14, differed when its synthesis was repeated and (b) spectra published for several compounds resulting from compound 14 (compounds 3, 4, and 20) were scanned from other papers.

Those other papers are the ones from the Chackalamannil et al. synthesis of himbacine, which took someone a fair amount of nerve. I will assume that Jack Baldwin did not scan in the spectra and claim them for his own. The other authors on the paper are Kirill Tcabanenko, Robert Adlington, and Andrew R. Cowley, for whom I can find no recent information. There’s a story here, for sure, but I don’t know its details. . .

35 comments on “A Retraction, Ten Years Later”

  1. Anonymous says:

    There is another interesting story highlighted by RetractionWatch:

  2. Bob says:

    Andrew Cowley used to be the crystallographer at Oxford, so I’m guessing it wasn’t him…

  3. Bob says:

    Which suggests it was one of the first two authors on the paper….which is kind of worrying given they’re both now PIs at pretty big (Tcabanenko) or very big (Adlington) schools in the UK

  4. Chemist says:

    They have an x-Ray of the epimer of compound 20, so I wonder what the story is with the wrong spectrum published for compound 14…

  5. Chemist says:

    They have an x-Ray of the epimer of compound 20, so I wonder what the story is with the wrong spectrum published for compound 14…

  6. The Iron Chemist says:

    So, the culprit is now a PI at a good school. Isn’t that a good lesson for junior scientists?

  7. Anon says:

    Hey, if Bengu Sezen could get a faculty position in Turkey why not this guy?
    Better yet, give a respected UK position to a man who judging from the name is likely a recent immigrant from who knows where! Its not unusual for western countries to not give preference to their own citizens….

  8. Martin says:

    Hmmm. My PhD supervisor determined the structure of himbacine for his PhD. He would not be impressed.
    The Structure of the Alkaloid Himbacine
    John Townley Pinhey
    University of Sydney, 1956

  9. Nick K says:

    In academic settings, it seems, cheats ALWAYS prosper….

  10. eugene says:

    “Better yet, give a respected UK position to a man who judging from the name is likely a recent immigrant from who knows where!”
    Looks like he’s from Ukraine. From Kiev University which had a pretty good reputation back in the Soviet Union days. And he spent around ten years between different groups doing his PhD and postdoc in Oxford (judging from the Scifinder record). It is likely he had UK citizenship when he applied for lectureship. Robert Adlington is very likely from the UK originally as he did his undergrad there and his name sounds kosher. He was a postdoc working under Jack Baldwin and later became a lecturer at the same university, and looks like at the time he was a prof, so maybe he was a co-supervisor for the research.
    See what a few minutes of internet research can do? You may sound a lot less xenophobic for one thing.

  11. eugene says:

    I think that getting to the bottom of this, well, the chance of that will be much better if you contact Retraction Watch, as they have a dedicated journalist for that who will write pestering emails to everyone involved, and also might have editorial contacts. Although with chemistry that’s not likely.
    They might not be able to judge the merits of the retraction in chemistry (though copying spectra from other papers is pretty obvious), but they have a lot of experience with everything else.

  12. Kevin says:

    Please look at comments in Pubpeer:

  13. Anonymous says:

    And it only took 8 comments before Bengu was brought up… She and the resulting scandal continue to be a hot topic on this site, and I think we need a catchier name to quickly refer to it. How about “Benguzi”, an homage to the Benghazi controversy that similarly won’t ever seem to go away?

  14. Chemjobber says:

    I seem to recall “Sames/Sezen” being the thankfully “gate”-less name at the time.

  15. JeffC says:

    Rob Adlington has essentially run the Baldwin group (the synthetic side) for >25 years first as the most senior post-doc and then later as an “independent” academic. The group was about 70 people at one stage so Adlington ran the synthetic part and another academic ran the more biological part. He has only ever done work as part of the Baldiwn group and it is highly unlikely that he made these compounds or was ever in the lab. Adlington is on every Baldwin paper if you have a look. Baldwin retired about 10 years ago in reality, so this is probably one of the last papers that came out of the group while he was still active.
    I’m not going to point fingers since we don’t know the full story. You can draw your own conclusions.

  16. Whistleblower says:

    Hey, I worked in Baldwins group at the same time when the paper was published. Kirill did all the lab work on that paper, and wrote it. There was only proofreading from adlington, and he may have missed those things. Adlington would never have allowed those things, he is very honest. Baldwin was mostly absent from CRL at that time, and he probably did not even read it.
    Hence, you can guess the source of these things.
    In all honesty, I can hardly remember a more unpleasant person in chemistry than Kirill. He was hated by everyone in the group.

  17. JeffC says:

    #17. Indeed. Rob is a good guy and I’m a little surprised he missed this given his usual thoroughness. I predate the publication date of this paper by a few years but I’ve heard enough to make my own conclusions on this which are the same as yours……

  18. Lyle Langley says:

    #8, Anon…
    “Hey, if Bengu Sezen could get a faculty position in Turkey why not this guy?”
    Hey, if Dalibor Sames can stay at Columbia, why not this guy?

  19. Hap says:

    @14: Well, the participants in Sames/Sezen could have made the mess go away, but they didn’t. Columbia changed its rules to avoid disclosing information, so they obviously wanted it to be forgotten and not finished; were it not paid for with federal grants, we would know almost nothing.
    The other issue that made Sames/Sezen persistent is the unfairness of it – the people who tried to mitigate the cheating were fired for their inability to reproduce fraud, the professor who supervised the fraud (and took credit before it was known as fraud) has a stain on his reputation but a remunerative job, and Sezen is a professor.
    It has also become the ur-representative of a depressing subsection of scientific endeavor – the “No good deed goes unpunished” section, or the “I’m firing you for killing my fraudulent buzz” literature. So I can see why this story would be persistent and why certain people would wish it not so. Sorry ’bout that.

  20. Wavefunction says:

    Hexacyclinol was retracted after six years.

  21. Anon24 says:

    Just like #6 mentioned above, they got xray structure for compount 20, so it would be very interesting to know the reasons behind this whole thing.
    What I do strogly disagree with is “I will assume that Jack Baldwin did not scan in the spectra and claim them for his own”. PIs are the ones who get all the fame for their students’ accomplishments, and they must the the ones to take most of the blame.

  22. Poison Ivy League says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with #22 (Anon24) in that the buck should (ultimately) stop with the supervisor. Many of these incidents have pretty clear warning signs (erratic behaviour, “miraculous” solutions to hitherto unsolvable problems, confidential complaints from other students) and if a lab head is unable/unwilling to be involved enough to see them he/she should not have a lab. Travel schedule and/or lab size is no excuse.
    Unfortunately, both UCLA and Columbia (as alluded to by numbers 19 and 20) have shown that PIs will NOT be held accountable for either their workers’ wellbeing nor the veracity of their claims…

  23. Old Timer says:

    I wholeheartedly disagree with #22 and #23. The research adviser does not “get all the fame for their students’ accomplishments.” This might be true in the top 5 labs, but in the rest, the adviser is doing the lion’s share of idea generation, data analysis, reaction curation and so on. Everything looks obvious in hindsight, so most students don’t understand the gentle nudges that kept them on track for their Ph.D. When some low life decides to photocopy a spectra and pass it off as the real deal, how is the PI supposed to detect it!? Especially Sir Baldwin at that time. You people really think too highly of academics. They can be misled just like everyone else – perhaps even more easily. In my experience, “erratic behaviour, “miraculous” solutions to hitherto unsolvable problems, confidential complaints from other students” were a daily occurrence. It did not bring into question the science.

  24. Lyle Langley says:

    @24, Old Timer…
    Whether the PI’s “get all the fame for their students’ accomplishments”, or they are “doing the lion’s share of idea generation, and so on”, the fact is it is their lab and their responsibility to make sure the data is correct. Since all of the comments on here are wild speculation (par for the course on this site) as to what happens, it’s hard to say what is going on here. But, it seems like you are giving “Sir Baldwin” a nice out in your statement as well (“Especially Sir Baldwin at that time”). If he cannot manage the lab appropriately, then it should be shut down or someone else needs to take over.

  25. Old Timer says:

    @25 Lyle, I’ve looked at the NMRs that led to the retraction. You know how you can tell they are photocopied from the original isolation paper??? There is a hair or smudge or something right above one of the peaks, and a tiny impurity is present in both. Even on their best day, 99% of people would miss this kind of deceit. I’m not giving anyone an out, I’m pointing out that people who want to deceive can do so easily. Just ask Frank Abagnale.

  26. dearieme says:

    “most students don’t understand the gentle nudges that kept them on track for their Ph.D.” Very true; it took me some time to realise just how much I owed to my PhD supervisor. I hope I repaid the favour by doing the same job for my own troops.
    As for “PIs ought to know”: yes they ought, but the reality is that much of science is based on trust, with the honest perhaps being especially trusting. Did any of my students deceive me? I do hope not but I couldn’t swear to it. Even Homer nods. I congratulate the Oxford group for the retraction. I’ll congratulate the university if it investigates, and eventually withdraws a PhD if merited.

  27. Lyle Langley says:

    Ignorance is no defense. Glad to see this was retracted. Other times (as noted above) it’s not that way.

  28. Hap says:

    Looking at paper NMRs might have caught this, but I don’t know if that was SOP at the time. Looking at the detail would have, but I don’t know if that would have happened – my advisor generally didn’t look at my NMRs, but I wasn’t in a synthetic group. I don’t know if the results were in the “too good to be true” category.
    I wonder how the synthesis was organized – I assumed that people worked on fragments, and cooperated in assembly, but this was faked not so far on, so I wonder how it got so far.

  29. dearieme says:

    If Baldwin put his name on the paper he must be assumed to be claiming to have made non-negligible intellectual input to it. In which case some of the ordure sticks to him too, since surely to God he’d have read the paper critically before submission.
    (Otherwise he’s a cheat of a different kind.)

  30. RepurposedChemist says:

    Worked for Kirill in Belfast, not surprised to hear he may have been involved.The departments feelings echo those of #17. I know I was encouraged to massage the results and data on a few occasions, leading to friction when I wouldn’t!
    Hope this goes somewhere and isn’t just forgotten!

  31. WD says:

    Academia is riddled with corruption and often rewards criminal behavior. As for the punishments–they’re more likely to crucify some old fuddy-duddy who cracks a bad joke than someone who does something illegal.

  32. Robert says:

    I recall a colleague getting scooped by the Baldwin group on a total synthesis and then tilting his computer screen to reveal the shadow from the whiteout over the NMR peaks in the SI. He didn’t want to rock the boat so he kept his mouth shut… wonder if he’ll say anything now.

  33. Simon says:

    Another example of a large, well-funded and prestigious group that attracts people whose ambition exceeds their ability and/or morality. This is another reason why I don’t believe in concentration of funding on the chosen few in academia. This kind of thing is then almost inevitable. I would bet good money on the eventual outcome being deafening silence.

Comments are closed.