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Research Integrity

Single-molecule magnet controversy highlights transparency problems with U.K. research integrity system

Universities’ reluctance to reveal details of such cases could undermine public trust in research, experts say 

by Mark Peplow
November 2, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 45

 

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Credit: Nature/Angew. Chem. Int. Ed.
The Mills group and Layfield group, both at the University of Manchester at the time, published papers describing the synthesis of the same molecule, done in exactly the same way.

For Conrad A. P. Goodwin, June 6, 2017, was a pretty harrowing day.

The organometallic chemist, then at the University of Manchester, had just finished his Ph.D. on a high. Earlier that year he had synthesized an organometallic complex called dysprosocenium that could be switched from one stable magnetic state to another. Single-molecule magnets (SMMs) like this might eventually be used in extremely-high-density memory devices, but researchers had previously been able to make SMMs that only operated at ultracold temperatures. Crucially, Goodwin’s molecule could retain its designated magnetic state at up to 60 K—the highest temperature yet for any SMM. By the end of May, Nature had accepted a paper about the work from Goodwin and his colleagues, subject to revisions.

09545-feature1-dyspro.jpg

Then, on that fateful June day—months before Goodwin’s report actually published—a paper appeared in Angewandte Chemie describing exactly the same molecule, made in exactly the same way. Goodwin and his colleagues had been scooped. To make matters worse, the team behind the Angewandte paper was led by Richard A. Layfield, a professor whose office was just down the hall from Goodwin’s supervisor, David P. Mills.

“We’d put so much work into it,” recalls Goodwin, who now works at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “The synthetic methodology was brand new, so we thought we were on to something cool. Then, suddenly, the novelty was gone.”

This highly unusual situation, two groups at the same university working on the same project independently, sparked a complaint to the university, which subsequently convened a panel to investigate what happened.

The panel reached its verdict on Jan. 8, 2018. But it took another eight months before the university made any public statement on the matter. Released on Sept. 5, the brief statement on Manchester’s website says that the investigation “reached a finding of research misconduct against a senior academic who is no longer in the employment of the University.” That senior academic, the university confirmed to C&EN, was Layfield, who moved to the University of Sussex in May 2018.

Manchester’s statement prompted questions. Research misconduct comes in many forms, from lapses in judgment to outright falsification of results. But what exactly was Layfield accused of? What evidence supported the finding of research misconduct? And did Sussex know about all this before it hired Layfield?

Until now, the answers have been shrouded in mystery. That’s because both Manchester and Sussex have refused to publicly release any further information and have recommended that employees do not discuss details of the case with C&EN. They argue that misconduct investigations are confidential and that they have data protection and other legal obligations that may prevent public disclosure.

“As a young researcher, the way things have been swept under the rug is quite upsetting,” Goodwin says.

Under the U.K.’s Freedom of Information Act, C&EN requested a copy of Manchester’s investigation report and received a partially redacted version. Although people’s names have been blacked out, information from researchers familiar with the case (who requested anonymity out of concern for the potential impact on their careers) helped fill those gaps.

Taken together, these sources reveal how Layfield learned of the Mills group’s intention to make dysprosocenium and then raced to publish the synthesis first. The investigation found no problems with his scientific data or the paper’s conclusions. But it did determine that Layfield had presented his work—without disclosing the rival group’s discoveries—in an “unethical” way that “amounts to deception,” according to the report.

When C&EN put the allegations in this article to Layfield, he provided a brief statement: “At the time of reporting my group’s findings, I understood them to be novel.” There is no evidence that Layfield has ever been involved in any other instances of research misconduct.

Research integrity experts say that the air of secrecy around this case illustrates a wider problem with the way U.K. universities investigate allegations of research misconduct. All too often, there is a lack of transparency about how institutions run such investigations, and their findings often remain confidential. And although Manchester did belatedly issue a public notice that it had concluded an investigation, some universities do not even disclose that such investigations have taken place.

“Most U.K. universities seem to regard any kind of investigation as confidential,” says Elizabeth Wager, a consultant on publication ethics and former chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).

Many argue that a lack of transparency risks undermining public trust in research and may also hamper science itself. “The community of scholars works on trust,” says C. K. Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional & Research Ethics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “When that trust is broken, it’s incumbent on the institution to share the facts so that other scholars do not waste time, energy, and resources.”

“We do not accept that we have not been transparent,” the University of Manchester says in a statement to C&EN. “The University has a duty of care to its staff and students and must take this into account when deciding whether to disclose information which identifies or may identify individuals.” It also notes that it informed Angewandte Chemie and funders affected by the case.

But the chorus of voices crying for reform of the U.K.’s research integrity system is growing louder. In July, members of Parliament (MPs) on the U.K.’s House of Commons’ Science & Technology Committee concluded an inquiry into research integrity issues and determined that some U.K. universities were being too secretive about their misconduct investigations. The MPs called for a national committee on research integrity, a watchdog group that would ensure research misconduct investigations are handled rigorously and transparently. “When someone is found guilty of misconduct, it’s hard to see any circumstances where keeping that secret is appropriate,” argues Norman Lamb, MP, the committee’s chair and a former employment lawyer.

If publication is the coin of the realm in academia, then a paper that takes credit for someone else’s research is a serious matter.
C. K. Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional & Research Ethics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Cool switch

The two labs involved in the dysprosocenium case are targeting SMMs because such molecules could offer a way to dramatically shrink data-storage systems. These molecules can exist in two different magnetic states that represent a one or zero in terms of binary data; an external magnetic field can “write” this data by switching the molecule from one state to the other. Mills’s team estimates that arrays of these molecules could hold up to 30 terabits of data per square centimeter—hundreds of times as much as the best commercial magnetic hard drives—as long as the molecules remain in a given magnetic state at practical temperatures.

The dysprosocenium complex made by the Manchester researchers, [Dy(Cpttt)2][B(C6F5)4], contains a Dy3+ ion sandwiched between two cyclopentadienyl ligands that each sport three tert-butyl groups (Cpttt). The metal ion has five unpaired electrons with a lot of orbital angular momentum, which helps ensure that the complex’s data-storing states are distinct. The ligands shape the energies of the complex’s magnetic states to prevent a binary “one” from spontaneously turning into a “zero,” which would erase the data in this molecular memory.

Before dysprosocenium arrived on the scene, the best SMMs would lose their memory above 14 K or so because of molecular vibrations. So achieving this effect at 60 K was a major advance in the field. The compound also operated tantalizingly close to the temperature of liquid nitrogen (77 K), which would make memory devices based on SMMs a much more realistic prospect—not for desktop computers, but perhaps in large data centers. “Liquid nitrogen is cheap and plentiful, so getting it to liquid-nitrogen temperature would make this technology accessible for applications in industry,” says Nicholas Chilton of the University of Manchester, who worked with Mills and Goodwin on the Nature paper.

Chilton had calculated that a Dy3+ complex bearing just two ligands, one on either side of the metal ion, might have the right properties to set a new temperature record. Goodwin was tasked with making it a reality, working with lab colleague Fabrizio Ortu.

The Cpttt ligand was important because it gave the complex a rigidity that helped preserve its magnetic memory. But the key to the researchers’ synthesis was an esoteric silylium reagent that could remove chloride from a precursor complex, Dy(Cpttt)2Cl, and replace it with a bulky anion, tetrakis(pentafluorophenyl)borate [B(C6F5)4], which coordinates only weakly with the complex and doesn’t disturb its magnetic states.

By mid-February 2017, Goodwin says, they had made the chloride precursor and were ready for the final push.

Meanwhile, Layfield had been working with dysprosium metallocenes for years. A 2016 paper that he coauthored with Chilton notes that a Dy3+ ion sandwiched by two cyclopentadienyl ligands could have impressive magnetic properties. However, the paper also says that preparing such a highly electrophilic complex presented “a formidable challenge” (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2016, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201604346). Layfield instead pursued related complexes with more ligands, which were easier to synthesize.

The report produced by Manchester’s investigation panel details how the two labs subsequently converged on dysprosocenium.

On Feb. 24, 2017, Mills told Layfield that his team was preparing to make a dysprosocenium complex but did not disclose how. The report alleges that this conversation prompted Layfield to work toward the same complex, a point that would become crucial to the investigation panel’s ruling. On the same day, Layfield emailed another researcher and asked that person to suggest a chloride-removing reagent that could be used to make a dysprosocenium complex, according to the report.

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Mills’s team synthesized its dysprosocenium and obtained a crystal structure in early March 2017. By the end of the month, the researchers had written a draft paper on the work. They deposited the compound’s crystal structure in the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre’s freely-accessible database on April 7, 2017, and submitted their paper to Science on the same day. A few days later, Layfield learned that Mills and coauthors had made dysprosocenium and that they had submitted their paper. The report alleges that this spurred Layfield to hasten his own team’s experiments toward the molecule.

According to Goodwin, on April 18, 2017, Science declined to send his team’s paper out for peer review, so the group submitted it to Nature a few days later.

The report says that researchers in Layfield’s group finally made the Dy(Cpttt)2Cl precursor in early May. Dysprosocenium itself soon followed, and after working on magnetic measurements and theoretical calculations with collaborators in China and Finland, Layfield’s group added its own structure of the complex to the Cambridge crystallography database on May 23, 2017. Angewandte Chemie received Layfield’s paper on May 26—the very same day that Mills’s Nature paper was accepted, subject to revisions, according to the report.

Timeline: Key events in the single-molecule magnet misconduct case

 

Feb. 24, 2017: The University of Manchester’s David Mills tells colleague Richard Layfield that his group plans to make dysprosocenium.

April 7, 2017: Having synthesized dysprosocenium, the Mills group deposits a crystal structure of the complex into the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre and submits a paper to Science.

April 12, 2017: Layfield learns that the Mills group has submitted a paper about dysprosocenium.

April 21, 2017: After learning that Science declined to review its paper, the Mills group submits it to Nature.

May 23, 2017: Layfield’s group deposits its own structure of dysprosocenium into the Cambridge data center.

May 26, 2017: Nature accepts the Mills group’s paper, subject to revisions. Angewandte Chemie receives the Layfield group’s paper on dysprosocenium.

June 6, 2017: Angewandte publishes the Layfield group’s paper.

June 13, 2017: Formal complaint filed with Manchester about the case.

Aug. 23, 2017: Nature publishes the Mills group’s paper.

Jan. 8, 2018: Manchester concludes a misconduct investigation into the Layfield-Mills case by producing a report.

May 2018: Layfield moves to the University of Sussex.

Sept. 5, 2018: Manchester issues the first public statement about the case on its website.

Source: University of Manchester investigation report, Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre

Layfield’s paper was peer reviewed, accepted, and then published just over a week later (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2017, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201705426). Layfield used the same silylium reagent that Mills’s team used to make dysprosocenium and paired the complex with the same weakly coordinating anion. “The molecule is identical; the magnetic experiments are more or less identical; the results are identical,” says Chilton, who agreed to speak to C&EN about the scientific content of the two dysprosocenium papers but not the misconduct case.

Chilton and Mills’s Nature paper was finally accepted on June 27, 2017, and eventually published on Aug. 23 (Nature 2017, DOI: 10.1038/nature23447). Since then, Layfield’s paper has been cited more than 130 times and the Nature paper more than 240 times.

As the Manchester report says, competition between research groups does not amount to poor practice or research misconduct. The report also notes that Layfield did not get the idea to use the silylium reagent from Mills or his group, nor did he steal their data.

Nevertheless, the investigation panel concluded that Layfield had committed two forms of research misconduct. First, it alleges that Layfield was fully aware that Mills’s team had submitted its paper before his own group made the molecule. This was done “in the knowledge that it contained essentially the same research” as Mills’s paper and with the intention of beating Mills to publication in order to obtain the credit for the discovery. “This, in the Panel’s view, was unprofessional and unethical conduct,” the report says.

“If publication is the coin of the realm in academia, then a paper that takes credit for someone else’s research is a serious matter,” says the ethics expert Gunsalus, of the University of Illinois. According to the report, Layfield said he was unaware of the actual contents of Mills’s paper. Layfield still asserts that he believed his findings to be novel.

Second, Angewandte Chemie’s guidelines for authors state that they “must inform the editor of other manuscripts accepted, submitted, or soon to be submitted that have a bearing on the manuscript being submitted.” But the report alleges that Layfield did not mention Mills’s paper, which was pending with Nature, when he submitted to Angewandte.

The report says that Layfield’s failure to provide this information to the journal, “in the Panel’s view, amounts to deception.” The findings in Layfield’s manuscript “were being presented as entirely novel findings to the journal” even though he “was aware that another research group was the first to make the discovery and had already submitted a manuscript describing this work.”

C&EN found no evidence that Layfield’s coauthors were involved in these alleged instances of misconduct. C&EN approached his coauthors for interview but received no responses.

In the report, the investigation panel writes that it was concerned that Layfield “appeared to have no insight as to the damage caused by his actions on the University, his colleagues’ or his own reputation; nor did he show any understanding of wrong doing, even in hindsight.” To address this, the report recommended that Layfield should undertake research integrity training and receive appropriate mentoring. That did not happen at Manchester, the university says, because he left soon after the investigation ended; it is unclear whether training or mentoring happened at Sussex. The reasons for Layfield’s move to Sussex are also unknown. Sussex would not comment on whether it knew about the misconduct case before hiring Layfield.

In a statement to C&EN, Sussex said, “The University supports Professor Layfield and the important work he is carrying out at Sussex. In his short time at the University, he has shown a commitment to the highest standards of research integrity and is a valued member of faculty.”

The investigation was a bruising experience for all concerned. “Everybody has been upset about what has happened,” says Richard Winpenny, who was head of chemistry at the University of Manchester during the investigation. “I’ve lost more sleep over this than anything else I’ve dealt with.”

Layfield and two of his coauthors offered their own account of how they arrived at dysprosocenium in an article published on Aug. 9, 2018, which states that they had been working toward it since 2010 (Acc. Chem. Res. 2018, DOI: 10.1021/acs.accounts.8b00270). But by the time the account was published, rumors were flying around the small community of SMM researchers. Things came to a head at the 10th International Conference on f-Elements, held Sept. 3–6, 2018, in Lausanne, Switzerland, which Mills and Layfield both attended. With the conference underway, gossip about the controversy finally prompted Manchester to issue its online statement about the investigation.

We’ve got to be able to understand who has just made a silly mistake and should be brought back into the fold, and who are serial offenders.
Michael Farthing, vice-chair of UKRIO, founding chair of COPE, and former vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex

Pall of secrecy?

After its investigation, Manchester sent a copy of the report to the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which funds Layfield’s work. “Having reviewed the report, EPSRC has taken no action against Richard Layfield or the University of Manchester or the University of Sussex,” an EPSRC spokesperson told C&EN. “EPSRC recognizes that the term ‘Research Misconduct’ is commonly applied to describe a wide spectrum of scenarios, ranging from the most serious and deliberate fabrication or falsification of research data, through to inadvertent lapses of adherence to the high standards expected of article authors in the citing of sources. It is therefore important, in any case where ‘Research Misconduct’ is found to have taken place, that the consequences are proportionate.”

Indeed, Layfield’s EPSRC grant on SMMs was renewed this year and runs from May 2018 to the end of August 2020. (Mills and Chilton’s SMM work also won an EPSRC grant, which runs from July 2018 through June 2021.)

Layfield also receives funding from the European Research Council, which is now looking into the case. The editor of Angewandte Chemie, Neville Compton, has seen Manchester’s investigation report, and an ethics committee acting for the journal is still considering what action is required.

In a statement to C&EN, the University of Manchester said that in such cases it notifies relevant funders and journals “so that, where appropriate, revisions, corrections or clarifications can be made. We would expect the journals to place these changes in the public domain.”

Meanwhile, both teams have continued their research on SMMs. Mills and Chilton’s team used the silylium reagent from their Nature paper to make a series of dysprosocenium analogs based on other lanthanides (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2017, DOI: 10.1021/jacs.7b11535). And in a Science paper published on Oct. 18, 2018, Layfield unveiled a more-highly-substituted dysprosocenium complex that displayed stable magnetic switching at 80 K—the first SMM to operate above liquid-nitrogen temperature (Science 2018, DOI: 10.1126/science.aav0652).

When C&EN contacted Science about events leading up to this latest paper, it responded: “We did not know the details of the investigation, nor did we know that the formal findings had been announced this past September, while the new paper from Richard Layfield and colleagues was under consideration at Science. Now that we have been alerted to the findings from the institutional investigation, Science editorial is seeking more details.”

The pall of secrecy surrounding the case has damaged relationships in the SMM community, according to several chemists interviewed by C&EN. Without a full and transparent disclosure of exactly what happened, researchers have begun to pick sides on the basis of rumors alone, says a senior researcher familiar with the case: “I’m concerned that there are now two camps in the U.K.”

Although Mills declined to speak about the misconduct allegations, he wrote to C&EN in an email: “For the record I am delighted that you have taken it upon yourself to get this made more transparent, as this will be for the best for everyone to move forward.”

Tarnished system

Manchester’s reticence to release details about the case is not unusual. Many institutions, in the U.K. and elsewhere, do not publicly identify those involved in misconduct investigations, perhaps because of the potential for legal repercussions. Yet Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, bound by many of the same employment and data protection regulations as the U.K., are more open about the outcomes of research misconduct investigations, according to former COPE chair Wager.

In the U.S., the Office of Research Integrity also tends to be transparent about these cases. However, as part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, it deals with only federally funded biomedical research. Cases in the physical sciences are handled by the Office of Inspector General within the relevant federal agency, such as the National Science Foundation, and are not always afforded the same transparency. “Even in the U.S., there isn’t a national protocol,” Wager says.

In contrast, the U.K. does not have a research integrity regulator at all. The U.K. Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) is merely an advisory service on good research practice. Aside from clinical trials and other medical research, “there is no blanket statutory regulation of research or researchers” in the U.K., says UKRIO’s chief executive, James Parry.

Inside the 2012 Concordat to Support Research Integrity

This framework, which some argue has no teeth, defines good research conduct in the U.K. It outlines five key commitments to be undertaken by researchers, employers, and funders:

  • Maintain the highest standards of rigour and integrity in all aspects of research.
  • Ensure that research is conducted according to appropriate ethical, legal and professional frameworks, obligations and standards.
  • Support a research environment that is underpinned by a culture of integrity and based on good governance, best practice and support for the development of researchers
  • Use transparent, robust and fair processes to deal with allegations of research misconduct should they arise
  • Work together to strengthen the integrity of research and to review progress regularly and openly

Both Manchester and Sussex say they adhere to the 2012 Concordat to Support Research Integrity, a framework for good research conduct that was developed by the government, funders, universities, and UKRIO. It stipulates that universities have an obligation to investigate allegations of research misconduct by one of their employees and ensure that funders and journals involved in the case are aware of the outcome—as Manchester did. But universities have no legal obligation under the concordat to make the findings of a misconduct investigation public.

Many argue that this lack of transparency risks eroding public trust in the integrity of publicly funded research as a whole. “The whole system gets tarnished, not only those guilty of misconduct,” says Lamb, of the Science & Technology Committee. Wager also points out that the confidentiality of misconduct investigations can enable academics found to have committed research misconduct to move from one university to another without sanction or appropriate retraining.

The national committee on research integrity proposed by Lamb’s committee is modeled on similar bodies in Australia and Canada. It would allow universities to continue conducting their own investigations into research misconduct allegations but would provide oversight to ensure that the investigations are carried out properly. It would also produce an annual summary of misconduct cases and their outcomes. In Australia and Canada, such reports are anonymized, and it is unclear whether a U.K. integrity watchdog group would follow suit. However, Lamb says that encouraging greater transparency would be a key part of the new organization’s mission.

The government has asked UK Research & Innovation, the umbrella body for the country’s funding agencies, to explore the committee’s proposal in more detail. It is expected to report back in early 2019.

Greater transparency would also help ensure that university researchers found to have committed research misconduct are not all tarred with the same brush, says Michael Farthing, vice-chair of UKRIO, founding chair of COPE, and former vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex. He spoke to C&EN in a personal capacity, without representing the views of any organization, and on the basis that he was not told the identities of the people or institutions involved in the dysprosocenium case.

“We’ve got to be able to understand who has just made a silly mistake and should be brought back into the fold, and who are serial offenders,” Farthing says. In less serious cases, “people can be retrained and rehabilitated and should be allowed to continue their work,” he says. “The big challenge for the community is how do we share information without wrecking people’s careers, when people have just made a stupid mistake.”

As for Goodwin, he now just wants to move on. “I am very sad that my research ideas have caused so much personal stress rather than being a cause for celebration,” he says. “I just hope that when such incidents happen in the future they are resolved more quickly and openly.”

Mark Peplow is a freelance writer based in England.

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Comments
Annie Powell (November 7, 2018 8:22 PM)
This article raises a number of interesting issues.
1. Why didn't you seek the advice of the female(!) and very famous - if not the most famous - person in the area of Single Molecule Magnets who wrote a perspective in Nature on these two articles about the 60K system, just after both appeared? These two research articles are so obviously reporting the same system. Somewhat ironically the Perspective suggested a new step forward for the SMM community – but that really should not be in-fighting! The person who wrote this is, of course, Roberta Sessoli.
2. Should we try to form any opinions about why Manchester spent so long on producing a stance?
I, as a graduate and PhD student from Manchester was most upset by the lack of any sensible solution to this conundrum - why two labs in the same department don't just get together and why is no-one in a senior position able to give guidance to the prtagonists about how to make this whole debacle not become a debacle? I wrote to some people I know there saying this. What you identify as a “lack of transparency” in all of this also doesn't make any sense for the reputation of UK science.
3. Please take a historical perspective - history shows us that scientists are not actually capable of objectivity when their heart's passion is involved. There have been plenty of falsified results, temptation to get into high journals can lead to believing what you think you see - but this isn’t the case here: we are talking about two teams proving that the molecule in question is actually reproducible! Mostly we read about one version of a synthesis and anyone trying to reproduce it might have to spend a long time working out what was the trick to the recipe. In this case, and without knowing more details, this successful route to the same molecule has been proved independently.
4. I understand completely your criticism of the way in which the Manchester University authorities have been dealing with this whole thing. In any case, some decision about a press release had to be made at some point. The thing you did not note about the f-Elements meeting in Lausanne and the ICMM in Brazil is that they both took place at the same time and some people had enough money and energy to go both - I certainly only had enough of both resources to attend the Lausanne meeting and I certainly heard a lot of opinions about the whole matter. That leads me to point 5...
5. I don't think anyone ever knows where the truth really lies. Famously, "eye witnesses" confuse the colour of a victim's or of a culprit's clothes, their ethnic look and their gender - so we are all fallible. This brings me to point 6...
6. Why can't someone in Manchester or in the general community just be strong enough to say "Great results - let's find a way to make our community stronger rather than making us look like a bunch of bickering scientists who don't want to celebrate a breakthrough for our field".

In the end, science spends too much time thinking about personalities rather than celebrating what certain personalities can achieve. And we definitely should avoid any kind of "Witch hunt" here. We need the talented scientists to make the next molecules. The one things humans need to remember is that getting rid of the "difficult people" actually weakens any group effort - we need debate, arguments and reconciliations - just look at history…

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