Frances Arnold won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018. She also retracted a paper in January, 2020. The paper was authored by Inha Cho, Zhi-Jun Jia and Arnold, all from Arnold’s research group at the California Institute of Technology and involved a study that was published in the journal Science in May of 2019. The retraction statement published by Science reads:
“After publication of the Report “Site-selective enzymatic C‒H amidation for synthesis of diverse lactams” (1), efforts to reproduce the work showed that the enzymes do not catalyze the reactions with the activities and selectivities claimed. Careful examination of the first author’s lab notebook then revealed missing contemporaneous entries and raw data for key experiments. The authors are therefore retracting the paper.”
For this retraction, Arnold was praised by the post publication peer review (PPPR) idiocracy, a cloudy establishment headed by a self-appointed group of experts, or rather, by a bunch of angry nobodies seeking attention. Some of the champions of this alternative universe are Ivan Oransky, Adam Marcus, Leonid Schneider and Joshua L. Cherry (always hiding), all science or medicine drop-outs with an obvious motivation (Psychology 101). Frances Arnold was profusely praised for coming forward ever so candidly and decisively, prompting her first post-Nobel prize retraction. The PPPR talking heads uttered comments like: “That a person is willing to take responsibility for mistakes is very telling about his or her character”. “In order to make a real breakthrough, you have to courageously embrace your mistakes”. “Making and admitting mistakes should be made part of the scientific process”, and “Arnold should be viewed as a heroine for admitting her mistakes publicly and courageously”.
I would not want to offend the audience discussing these platitudes.
So, what peccadillo are we dealing with here? Much more than a peccadillo, as it turns out. Arnold’s paper was not submitted to your average journal, it was submitted to Science, one of the journals with the highest impact factor, attesting to the importance that Arnold and her coauthors attributed to the results. Moreover, Arnold knows, better than most, the standards of integrity and thoroughness demanded from a Science submission. Yet, in her own words, Arnold was too busy at the time of submission to look at the raw data, which proved to be missing from the lab records [!]. Even worse, Arnold was too busy to have the results replicated before submission. Really, Dr. Arnold? Appallingly, the results appeared spectacular but proved to be completely irreproducible, which is indicative that they were most likely fabricated, especially given that raw data could not be found. So, most likely we are dealing with blatant misconduct in Arnold’s lab, misconduct that Arnold herself was too busy to detect. Yet, Arnold got off the hook with alarming casualness. In fact, the only motivation for coming forward and retract the paper was the fact that the results sounded spectacular (if only they were true) and thus it would have been too risky for Arnold if other labs would attempt to reproduce them. No heroine here, just someone covering her …
So, what happened to Inha Cho, first author on the paper? Was she simply dismissed from the Arnold lab, as Arnold’s current group webpage suggests? Is Caltech investigating Cho’s other contributions while at Arnold’s lab to assess the extent of misconduct and delineate responsibilities? In particular, what about:
Inha Cho, Christopher K Prier, Zhi-Jun Jia, Ruijie K Zhang, Tamás Görbe, Frances H Arnold (2019) Aminohydroxylation of Styrenyl Olefins Catalyzed by an Engineered Hemoprotein. Angew Chem Int Ed Engl, 58 (10), 3138-3142
PMID: 30600873 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201812968
Has this work been cleared of misconduct?
If this had happened to the average Joe or even to Arnold before she was awarded the Nobel prize, what do you think would have happened? Let me tell you what would have happened: the retraction would have been regarded as a red flag, motivating a thorough scrutiny of Joe’s or Arnold’s work in search for a misconduct pattern. Instead, Arnold got praise by the PPPR idiocracy for coming forward in the most casual of manners. Such is the pathetic state of PPPR.