Breslow Paper In JACS Questioned | Chemical & Engineering News
  • 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 However, repetition of so much was certainly an error, so I understand why the Perspective needs to be withdrawn.”

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Web Date: April 30, 2012

Breslow Paper In JACS Questioned

Critics cite similarities between Perspective and two previously published papers
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: Ronald Breslow, self plagiarism, origin of life research, Journal of the American Chemical Society, scientific ethics

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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Irma Nowak (April 27, 2012 3:17 PM)
As long as Science is treated as a race or a competition there will be people willing to increase their performance in more or less ethical ways. Especially most prominent figures in chemistry business ought to be scrutinized. I can not believe that hard work alone was enough to catapult them to prominence. Lance Armstrong did not win Tour the France 7 times because his lungs/heart are 50% bigger than those of an average human, or because he is a harder worker. Come on people time to wake up.
Richard Schroeder (May 2, 2012 8:11 AM)
There's nothing wrong with increasing one's performance through more ethical means. It is the less ethical means that are the problem.
Albert Haim (April 27, 2012 3:20 PM)
It is not the first time that a JACS paper by Breslow has been questioned. See

Fredric Menger and Albert Haim, Struggles to Correct Published Errors. Nature 1992, 359, 666.(22 October 1992).

F. M. Menger, The Negative Rate Constants of Breslow and Huang. J. Org. Chem., 1991, 56 (22), pp 6251–6252

Albert Haim, Imidazole Buffer-Catalyzed Cleavage and Isomerization Reactions of Dinucleotides: The Proposed Mechanism Is Incompatible with the Kinetic Measurements. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1992, 114, 8384.

complicatedtruth (May 2, 2012 11:05 AM)
Sometimes words can have two meanings. Interpreted one way it would be wrong and interpreted another way it would be correct. So it is with negative rate constants. It would be ludicrous to suggest that Breslow or anybody else really thought that there could literally be negative rate constants. What he meant was that there could be apparent observed rate constants that are negative. This was clear to some but not so clear to others. It could have been bad choice of words but not ignorance or deception.

Same could be said of Menger's criticism in his well received ACR of Jencks and Kirby's use of entropy to describe effective molarity. Jencks and Kirby came up with a powerful way of interpreting rate-acceleration obtained from intramolecular reactions. Menger's criticism amounts to semantics rather than scientific content. Jencks knew all too well about the importance about orientation and orbital steering. Menger's critique makes it appear that Jencks missed some important but simple concepts. It's all very unfortunate...

Sometimes respectable scientists end up criticising other even more respectable scientists over semantics. Sadly, they of course don't realise this is semantics. Non-specialists with casual interest end up trusting the last paper to be published.
ChemicalGeneticist (April 27, 2012 5:45 PM)
Breslow is an amazing scientist. Everyone can question one or two things over his illustrious career, but overall, pretty darn good. This latest concern is really an astrix in a 10,000 pg novel. And in the grand scheme of things, come on people; its a review article. At some point, especially at his age, everything he writes on a topic will start to look the same. give this guy a break!
Paul Bracher (April 27, 2012 9:33 PM)
I expect that once the dust has settled, our community will have learned a lot from this story. It stands to open a debate on self-plagiarism in chemistry, specifically with regard to what degree of duplication is acceptable in research papers. You don't see this subject analyzed in any detail, but the celebrity of the author in this case will probably draw more attention to it.
saumitra sengupta (April 29, 2012 11:23 AM)
This is not the first time Breslow courting controversy - remember the paper on infinite dilution?
Friendly Fire (April 30, 2012 4:03 PM)
No - What paper is there with the subject of "infinite dilution", which is impossible by definition?
Leave Breslow Alone! (May 3, 2012 11:34 AM)
I think it's a reference to the Monica Mehta papers in JACS.
Paul Bracher (April 30, 2012 5:53 PM)
This is a good opportunity to ask Dr. Stang what "counts" as a re-done figure, i.e., how much must you change a figure for it to avoid copyright infringement and violation of the ACS's Ethical Guidelines with respect to self-plagiarism in a subsequent publication.

Here are three examples of Breslow's figures in JACS juxtaposed against those in the Tet. Lett. paper.

Fig 1:

Fig 3:

Fig 4:

Is this all that needs to be done? I'd love to finally have a definitive answer from a figure of authority. Thank you.
Unsurprised (April 30, 2012 11:54 PM)
This is not so much a problem of plagarism but a problem of centralization of power in academia. Breslow is 81 years old, was perfectly placed to collect rent(track record) from a demographic oppurtunity (the baby boom). This track record allows him to obtain government funds to do research using casualized cheap labour from abroad despite being 81 years old and a long way past his best. He is actively courted by JACS (which is edited by a 71 year old) to write articles. The fact that the research standards are slipping in chemistry should suprise no-one as long as track records are funded and not ability. In fact, I don't see why he should be singled out when many publications today are so derivative of previous work they may as well be plagarised.
Split P. Soup (May 1, 2012 1:46 PM)
I very much agree. Much of what I read is a rehashing of previous research with one small new data point added. Unfortunately, this kind of behaviour comes mostly from those "most famous" chemists in academia. It actually makes me angry at how much money gets thrown around to an exclusive "Good Old Boy" network and how most of it is wasted. I know, I've been in the middle of it for a while.
Peter Schwerdtfeger (May 21, 2012 5:33 AM)
I am glad and sad at the same time that the paper has been withdrawn from JACS. Glad because the paper presented a rather naive view on chemical evolution. There is not much evidence for favoring one theory (e.g. panspermia) over the many others which are around. Sad because it would have caused a much needed scientific debate on this interesting topic we know so little about rather than this avoidable debate on self-plagiarism.
Trent Wallis (May 1, 2012 6:54 AM)
The whole idea of self-plagiarism strikes me as rather ridiculous. The post above comparing the figures illustrates it perfectly! How many different ways are there to illustrate the same simple thing?

If this counts as 'self-plagiarism' and is unacceptable then it follows that it impossible to publish more than a few reviews on the same subject in your career. If you want to publish more than that, in your figures, do you flip things left to right? Rotate things a few degrees? Use a different font? What's the point of any of that? Why is it necessary to re-invent the wheel?
Mike (May 1, 2012 8:55 PM)
Tempest in a tea-pot. I doubt that anyone with an actual scientific career (blogging or editing journals is not a scientific career) cares about this one.

Also, these coments about age are completely off mark -- Breslow is more capable at 81 than some of these commenters were at the peaks of their careers. Also, I doubt he uses any federal funds -- ever heard of royalties? No? I guess not.
CisT (May 1, 2012 9:37 PM)
My parents are in their 80s and they repeat themselves a lot.
Friendly Fire (May 11, 2012 12:22 PM)
If they write articles in journals, your comment might be anything but rude and inappropriaie.
Am I Lloyd (May 8, 2012 9:59 AM)
Breslow should make a comment akin to Reagan: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I will not exploit for personal or political purposes, my opponents' youth and inexperience".

Seriously, this whole issue of self-plagiarism is being blown out of proportion. Far more important is the science in the papers. For instance, has anyone demonstrated the generation of enantiomeric excess via circularly polarized light?
Keyu (May 22, 2012 5:58 AM)
To me,the result of that is unbelievable!Self-plagiarism is difficult to dealt for he didn't use the same words and graphs in the two papers.
Peter Pape (May 28, 2012 5:23 AM)
The concern about Ron Breslow would be humorous if so many people wouldn't be taking it so seriously. What did Breslow do that is so wrong? He didn't steal anyone else's work. He responded to an editor's request for a paper on a technical subject of which he is the expert and developed the theories. He tried to change the verbiage and figures so that the new paper was not identical to prior publications. I feel that Professor Breslow is acting very ethically and is being persecuted by persons who are jealous of his fame and his career. As long as he references the information in his previous related papers, he has done no wrong.

Also, the comments about his age, about repetitiveness of elderly people, about 'his better days are past him' are ridiculous. Individuals are individuals. Someone at age 81 can be as sharp as a tack; others may be forgetful and repetitive. The same goes for someone at age 50;if that person doesn't keep up with current technology in his field, the 50 year old, too, can become obsolete.

Let's drop the persecution of Professor Ronald Breslow and use our energy for something productive!
Morris Slutsky (June 13, 2012 8:27 AM)
This seems a bit unfair. "Self-plagiarism" in a primary research publication would be apparent as someone trying to publish the same data twice, for example. But a review article is inherently a statement of opinion - is it at all fair to expect an author to have a different opinion with every article that they publish?
Jim Demers (June 28, 2012 9:10 AM)
An invitation to "write" an article rather implies that you're expected to, you know, WRITE it. The standards for a "Perspective" might be a bit more relaxed, but the wholesale cutting and pasting of paragraphs, as even Breslow admits, is a step over the line. With hindsight, this whole kerfuffle could easily have been avoided by explcitly stating that "portions of this article were previously published" in Tet. Lett. and Israel J. Chem. I'm sure someone of Breslow's stature could have obtained the needed permissions, if JACS felt the need to dot every i and cross every t. (If permission were refused, that's a pretty clear signal to pick up the pen.)

From the tone of some of the comments (here and elsewhere), there would still be sniping and griping from the cranks (eminent scientists get a free pass to recycle and republish, yadda yadda), but at least we might be spared the "P word". Personally, I have no problem with giving an interesting article wider distribution via a major journal -- and in that, at least, you have to admit: Breslow succeeded wildly.

Now let's talk about those enantiosaurs.

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