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Breslow Paper In JACS Questioned

Critics cite similarities between Perspective and two previously published papers

by Rudy M. Baum
April 30, 2012

UPDATE: On April 28 via e-mail, Breslow responded to C&EN’s request for comment:

“The Perspective was requested by the editor of JACS, and I decided to accept the invitation since I thought the work definitely deserved JACS publication,” Breslow wrote. “However, I had written two reviews before in other journals, so I was concerned to avoid self-plagiarism. I knew that figures should not be duplicated, so I redid them and, of course, used a new title and introduction, and a new sequence of presentation, but then I am afraid I fell in love with my own words previously used—after all it was the same material being discussed—and did not make enough effort to change them.

“I recognize that this was an error, and made it impossible for the journal to publish what I still believe was very important work answering a long-standing question. Apparently, many people had not read my previous reviews in journals with more specialized circulation, and wrote me favorably about the Perspective, seeing the work for the first time. However, repetition of so much was certainly an error, so I understand why the Perspective needs to be withdrawn.”

NOTE: The article as originally posted on April 27 follows.

The Journal of the American Chemical Society and ACS are investigating allegations of self-plagiarism leveled against Columbia University chemistry professor Ronald Breslow. ACS, which publishes C&EN, says that appropriate action will be taken by the journal if the society’s ethical guidelines have been violated. At this time, the paper has been removed from the JACS website.

The paper in question is a JACS Perspective entitled “Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth.” It has had a tumultuous online existence since it was posted on March 25 (DOI: 10.1021/ja3012897). It describes in detail Breslow’s ideas and experiments supporting those ideas on a mechanism whereby a modest excess of L chirality in amino acids in meteorites reaching prebiotic Earth could have translated into the homochirality that characterizes life on Earth today.

The paper concludes with speculation that life-forms elsewhere in the universe could be based on D-amino acids and that those life-forms could be advanced forms of dinosaurs. A media alert on the paper from the ACS press office on April 11 focused on this speculation. Some news outlets printed or posted stories based on the press release while a number of blogs criticized the release as being scientifically naive.

More seriously, as various individuals commented on the blog postings about the press release, one person noted similarities between Breslow’s JACS Perspective and a paper Breslow had published on the same subject in Tetrahedron Letters in 2010 (DOI: 10.1016/j.tetlet.2010.08.094). Subsequently, Stuart Cantrill, chief editor of Nature Chemistry, pointed out in his personal Twitter feed that the JACS Perspective was identical in large part to a review Breslow had published in 2011 in the Israel Journal of Chemistry (DOI: 10.1002/ijch.201100019). A number of chemistry-oriented blogs such as In the Pipeline and ChemBark subsequently weighed in on the controversy.

The society’s “Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research” state that “it is unacceptable for an author to include significant verbatim or near-verbatim portions of his/her work … without acknowledging the source.”

“We take allegations of plagiarism, including those of self-plagiarism, very seriously,” says Brian Crawford, president of the ACS Publications Division. In this instance, Crawford explains, it was determined that Breslow’s JACS Perspective should be removed from the ACS Publications website pending resolution of editorial and copyright concerns. The following notice currently replaces the article’s full text content: “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’s ‘Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research’ has occurred.” University of Utah chemistry professor Peter J. Stang is the editor of JACS.

Breslow did not respond to C&EN’s request for comment on the matter.

Breslow is a titan in the chemistry enterprise and a major figure at ACS. He served as the society’s president in 1996 and was the recipient of the society’s highest award, the Priestley Medal, in 1999. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the National Medal of Science (1991).


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