Retraction looms for brute-force chemistry study

Paper on ripping apart ring-shaped molecules to be retracted following misconduct investigation

Editor’s note: This study has now been retracted.

After an investigation identified scientific misconduct, a notable study that reported a way to reverse a previously irreversible chemical reaction is set to be retracted. Yet, despite dubious data, chemists say the 2011 Science study’s method holds up.

The study, led by chemist Christopher Bielawski, found that simple mechanical force could undo powerful chemical reactions that form sturdy molecular ring structures called triazoles (SN Online: 9/15/11, SN: 12/31/11, p. 24). Bielawski was then a professor at the University of Texas at Austin but has since moved to the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea.

In June, Science published an expression of concern about the study, flagging questionable data and referencing an ongoing investigation by the University of Texas. Similar expressions of concern have appeared about at least two other studies from Bielawski’s lab.

The university’s investigation recently ended and found misconduct. “One author of several papers in question told UT officials that he or she — acting alone — had falsified and otherwise misrepresented data or figures in the papers, which led to the finding of scientific misconduct,” Gary Susswein, a spokesperson for the University of Texas at Austin, says. Susswein cites federal privacy laws to explain why little else has been revealed about the case, such as the identity of the scientist that confessed to misconduct.

Spokesperson for Science, Natasha Pinol,released a statement on behalf of executive editor Monica Bradford. “We are in discussion with the University of Texas at Austin in an effort to obtain appropriate, transparent language for a retraction,” the statement read.  “We hope to publish the retraction early in 2015.”

Despite the looming retraction, chemists say that the ring-breaking method described in the 2011 paper and other findings from Bielawski’s lab have held up. Materials chemist Jeffrey Moore of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says that his own lab has repeated findings from the lab, as have other researchers. “At least qualitatively, the observations have been validated and the results are correct.”

Chemist Andrew Boydston of the University of Washington in Seattle agrees that the lab’s studies are so far standing the test of time. His lab validated an experiment similar to the one in the 2011 Science study. “It is important that researchers, including the Bielawski group, continue to study these systems,” Boydston says. “The literature will work out the details in cases where there are inconsistencies, as is happening in this case.”

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