Array of errors, but Spanish chemist stands by concept

Watchdog recommends retraction of Science paper after 'indications' of bad practice. Paul Jump writes

August 19, 2010

A Spanish scientist has admitted to making mistakes but is standing by his science after an ethics committee recommended the retraction of a paper in the journal Science.

Manuel Ferrer, a researcher at the Institute of Catalysis and Petrochemistry in Madrid, was one of two corresponding authors of a paper published last October that described a technique called a reactome array, which purported to be able to identify all enzyme activity in a cell.

However, chemists identified flaws in the paper and claimed the technique was impossible. Science reacted in December with an "editorial expression of concern" and a request for the authors' institutions to check the data.

The ethics committee of the Spanish National Research Council, which funds Dr Ferrer's institute, has now concluded that the paper should be retracted because it did not have "all the necessary experimental support for the conclusions".

The committee highlighted "clear indications of deviation from good scientific practices" in the conduct of experiments and the treatment of data, and apparent contradictions in the authors' responses to questions from Science. But attributing blame to individuals would need further investigation, it added.

Science has now written to all 18 of the paper's authors. A spokeswoman for the journal confirmed that the letter "mentioned the option" of retraction. But she added that Science was still waiting for a "definitive response" from the current and previous employers of the paper's other corresponding author, Peter Golyshin: Bangor University in the UK and the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany, respectively. A spokeswoman for Bangor said that its report would be ready next week.

Professor Golyshin could not be contacted, but Dr Ferrer told Times Higher Education that he had accepted "from the beginning" that the paper contained mistakes. "We had a huge amount of information and maybe I couldn't handle it all myself ... but I thought it was better to show the potential application of the technology," he said.

He added that no decision had been taken about a retraction, but was confident that new experiments he was working on would verify his chemistry.

The ethics committee also noted that "a number of scientists" were convinced the array worked. It also expressed concern about Science's peer-review procedures.

The committee's leader, Pere Puigdomenech, told THE that the paper's mistakes would have been picked up by an organic chemist, "but we understand it is difficult to appoint referees ... when reviewing a complex multidisciplinary article".

Meanwhile, The Boston Globe reported last week that a 2002 paper by Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser, which investigated whether monkeys could follow rules, is to be retracted from the journal Cognition after a Harvard investigation found evidence of unspecified scientific misconduct.

Science has asked for more information before deciding what to do about a paper Professor Hauser published in the journal in 2007. He is on leave for the next academic year.

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