Fellow blogger ChemBark recently reported how a paper released online in the American Chemical Society journal "Organometallics" has led to some surprising results. In the paper, the researchers discuss "palladium and platinum bis-sulfoxide complexes". All very interesting to noble metal chemists, perhaps. But, that is not the surprise that has attracted the chemical blogging community's attention, rather it is a couple of lines tucked away on page 12 of the supplementary information published with the original paper that read as follows:

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

ChemBark describes this statement as going, "beyond a simple embarrassing failure to properly edit the manuscript, as it appears the first author is being instructed to fabricate data." The paper was pulled from the "print" queue, but the authors themselves in their defence told the journal publisher, American Chemical Society, that, "the statement pertains to a compound that was “downgraded” from something being isolated to a proposed intermediate." In a statement published on the ChemBark site, the journal's Editor­in-Chief, John Gladysz had this to say: "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." ChemBark unearthed the PhD thesis on which the paper is largely based and spotted numerous discrepancies, allegedly.

One might suspect that it wouldn't be too difficult to come up with some legitimate-seeming NMR data that could pass muster as genuine and convincing if merely glanced at rather than being fed into spectroscopic simulation software by a referee or reader. But, if one were going to commit such a scientific fraud the last thing one would wish to do would be to leave the instructions to a colleague to do so in the paper that one had submitted to one's favourite journal and thus expose one to a potentially career-wrecking investigation. Obviously.

Of course, the chemical blogosphere and the scientific media are ablaze with this case, but at least it has been caught because of the authors'
editing oversight. Does this happen a lot? There have been several cases where fabricated data, elemental analyses, for instance, have been exposed as fabricated and led to scientific fraud investigations. Under deadline pressure, one can well imagine that an otherwise scrupulous research paper might have snipped out the odd outlier from a data set and packed in perfect points on a graph just to fit the hypothesis. The scientific literature could well be littered with such soft fraud and who knows how many other full-on fabrications?

I once uncovered a scientific fraud when reporting for the journal Science back in the early 1990s, a paper published in a major chemistry journal based in Europe made claims for magnetic effects and chiral compounds that turned out to be so obviously bunkum in retrospect. In that instance, it was a graduate student, if I remember rightly, presumably seeking fame and fortune, who simply invented a magnetic phenomenon and the data to support it. There have been several cases since. They have often taken a few months, if not years, to emerge, as suspicious about the paper are aroused in scientific circles and results fail the reproducibility test.

Pundits often claim that the peer review process is broken, one has to wonder how many frauds and serious discrepancies are spotted at that stage of publication. For my perspective, I read hundreds and hundreds of referee reports - acceptances, indecisions, and rejections - during my time at the editorial desk of a major chemistry publisher in the late 1980s and early 1990s and do not recall a single case where a referee asserted that data had been fabricated. That's not to say that they weren't. Who knows? Most published papers languish in "perfect bound"
publications and are rarely seen and even less frequently cited. Even now, that they are mostly all searchable via databases it seems that scientists in certain parts of the world rarely bother digging out the European-originated literature and frequently re-invent the wheel, wonky or otherwise.

In the web 2.0 era of social networking, fast, global, smart communication and the assessment of the crowd, fraud can be uncovered that much more quickly especially if the researchers involved leave the evidence in plain sight. Perhaps there is now a basis for crowd sourcing the peer-review process "Reddit" style, where members of the particular area of science get to up-vote or down-vote papers...I can foresee problems, but it could save a lot of heartache for journal editors and perhaps if extended retrospectively could even help us clean up the scientific literature.

-The Nano Letters paper has now been retracted.

- I blogged about controversial work on striped nanoparticles in January 2013, the jury is still out on this one.
David Bradley blogs at http://www.sciencebase.com and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".