A former president of the American Chemical Society has defended himself against allegations of self-plagiarism today.
Ronald Breslow, an eminent chemist who leads a research group at Columbia University in New York, has denied any wrongdoing after it emerged that several passages in papers he authored were almost identical to each other. A number of chemists have called for retraction of the most recent paper, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). The paper was promoted to the media in an 11 April press release that suggested that advanced dinosaurs could exist on other planets.
But in an e-mail to Nature, Breslow said that he had done nothing wrong, pointing out that the article was a ‘Perspective’ piece intended to review the field, not an original research publication.
“When I submitted it I made it clear what I had done to avoid personal plagiarism while still meeting the purpose of the Perspective; it would have made no sense not to describe the previous work, which was requested, as long as I gave the appropriate references,” he wrote.
“Please distinguish a personal review from a paper,” he says. “It was this distinction that led me to write it, while making enough changes to avoid copyright infringement while still telling the real story.”
The JACS paper that prompted this debate was a sober discussion of a rather technical aspect of amino-acid chemistry. However, a press release from the American Chemical Society (ACS) picked up on the throwaway last line that there could be other amino-acid-based life forms elsewhere in the Universe, and that “such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs”.
Sections of the text of this paper seem to match a previous paper, published in 2011 in the Israel Journal of Chemistry (see example below). Some of the wording is also similar to a paper in the Elsevier journal Tetrahedron Letters. All three papers were authored solely by Breslow.
The similarities between the papers were noted on social-media sites. Nature Chemistry’s chief editor Stuart Cantrill highlighted (literally) the similarities between the JACS and Israel Journal of Chemistry papers in a series of pictures.
Cantrill says that if his journal had published the original paper, “I would be contacting the editor of the journal that had published the plagiarizing piece and the author of that for an explanation of what’s going on”.
“I see very little alternative but for JACS to retract the paper,” he adds.
The widely read Chembark blog also suggests that the JACS paper should be retracted. “Ronald Breslow is a powerful member of the chemical elite, and he has led a distinguished career associated with a strong body of research. He has achieved the rank of University Professor, won the highest honour from the American Chemical Society, and even served as the President of our Society. But no scientist should be above the rules,” notes the blog.
The ACS’s own “Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research” state that self-plagiarism is unacceptable and verbatim quotes from previous work should be placed in quotation marks. The guidelines state that although “one or two” identical sentences are unlikely to be regarded as duplicate publication, “it is unacceptable for an author to include significant verbatim or near-verbatim portions of his/her own work, or to depict his/her previously published results or methodology as new, without acknowledging the source”.
Nature is awaiting comment from
the ACS and Columbia University.
UPDATE 26/04 – In a statement, the ACS says, “We are following established procedure to investigate the claim of self-plagiarism. If it is determined that this is case of self-plagiarism, appropriate action will be taken as provided for in our ethical guidelines.”
UPDATE 17/04 – The JACS paper has been removed. The page now states “This article was removed by the publisher due to possible copyright concerns. The Journal’s Editor is following established procedure to determine whether a violation of ACS Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research has occurred.”
Extract from ‘Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth‘ (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 134, 6887–6892; 2012).
Extract from ‘Formation of L Amino Acids and D Sugars, and Amplification of their Enantioexcesses in Aqueous Solutions, Under Simulated Prebiotic Conditions‘ (Israel J. Chem. 51, 990–996; 2011).
Extract from ‘The origin of homochirality in amino acids and sugars on prebiotic earth‘ (Tetrahedron Lett. 52, 4228–4232; 2011).
[Note – this is a corrected and republished version of Tetrahedron Lett. 52, 2028–2032 (2011). See erratum in Tetrahedron Lett. 52, 4227 (2011).]