After publication of the Report “Site-selective enzymatic C‒H amidation for synthesis of diverse lactams” (1), efforts to reproduce the work showed that the enzymes do not catalyze the reactions with the activities and selectivities claimed. Careful examination of the first author’s lab notebook then revealed missing contemporaneous entries and raw data for key experiments.
My first thoughts on reading this were (1) Oh dear, and (2) Good for Prof. Arnold. It’s of course not good that this work slipped through, but in a follow-up tweet she admits being distracted when this one was submitted (that would be the Nobel award), and that she did not do her job well. To be honest, I’m glad to see such a forthright admission and I wish that more people would follow the example. Lab heads who are willing to step up like this should be applauded, and seeing it happen in a Nobelist’s research group should be yet another example of why the Royal Society was right to make their motto Nullius in verba (on no one’s word). We don’t argue from fame or authority in this business; we argue from reproducibility of results. It’s good to see interesting results from a reliable lab, because that makes you think that the stuff will be more likely to work when you try to reproduce it. (The first link in this post will show that this is far from the first time that a Nobel laureate has retracted a paper!)
This sort of thing (someone inventing or overselling their work and trying to run it past a busy academic PI) is unfortunately an old story. I have personally seen it happen, and I’ll bet that there are several readers here who have stories as well. Sometimes it gets caught, and sometimes it doesn’t. And even worse, when something like this actually makes it through, sometimes the paper gets retracted and sometimes it doesn’t. This one clearly deserved to be pulled, and I’m glad that it has been. But there are plenty more papers that that deserve the same treatment and for similar reasons.
The numbers are bad enough when you count up outright fraud like this looks to have been – missing raw data, blank notebook entries, etc. The revelations over the last few years about the number of faked-up Western blots and the like have been a good thing. But there’s a lot of stuff out there with notebooks and data that still just doesn’t quite reproduce. “Sorta kinda works sometimes” should not be the standard for publication – a project like that needs to go back in the oven rather than being written up for a journal. Sadly, those are even less likely to ever be retracted. At least in a case like this one there’s clear malfeasance and a clear failure to catch it, both of which can and should be acknowledged. But who’s going to send out a notice that their Novel General Powerful synthetic method from a year or two back doesn’t quite live up to any of those adjectives, on further reflection? That New Ligand X only works on alternate Tuesdays in months without an R in them and that the paper on it was Frankensteined together accordingly? Or that some other papers really should be asterisked somehow because their conclusions are built on wonky cell lines, inappropriate chemical probes, or antibodies that no one can get anymore?