Issue Date: November 11, 2010
A multi-institution team has retracted a biochemistry paper published in the Oct. 9, 2009, issue of the journal Science. The study described a reactome array, a sensitive metabolite array designed to obtain quantitative profiles of a cell's metabolic networks (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1174094).
"Given the errors in the paper, and the skepticism about the array that they have generated, we retract the paper," the authors, led by Manuel Ferrer of the Spanish National Research Council's (CSIC) Institute of Catalysis, write in the retraction. "We apologize to Science, our institutions, and the scientific community for any inconvenience."
When the work was published last year, it generated significant controversy because of the chemistry it described (C&EN, Jan. 11, page 7). In January, Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts issued an "Editorial Expression of Concern" about the work. And in August, a CSIC ethics panel recommended that the paper be withdrawn (C&EN Online Latest News, Aug. 10). CSIC has denied C&EN's requests for a copy of the ethics panel's report.
One of the first people to call attention to the paper's shortcomings was University of Wisconsin, Madison, professor of chemistry and biochemistry Laura L. Kiessling, who is also the editor-in-chief of ACS Chemical Biology. "I think that the situation highlights the benefits of consulting relevant experts when conducting interdisciplinary research and when evaluating the data that results," she says.
Science continues to monitor its review processes, in particular the evaluation of supporting information, Alberts tells C&EN. When overwhelming amounts of material need to be reviewed, "without instructions to look for specific errors, even a diverse group of reviewers might miss what is obvious to the specialist," he says. "This problem can be exacerbated when a significant amount of data is added to the supporting online materials during revision. It is clear that increased vigilance is required in such cases."
Biochemist and Nobel Laureate Richard J. Roberts, chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs, thinks the decision to retract is premature. Initially skeptical of the array, Roberts visited Ferrer's lab and left convinced of its potential. "I still feel the technology is sound, even though the synthetic chemistry details to back it up were not up to scratch in the original paper," he says. "By withdrawing the paper, it sends the wrong message to the scientific community."
Ferrer tells C&EN that his team continues to use the technology and plans to submit new papers with thorough chemical characterizations of the array.
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