Good Practices

A strict and innovative punishment

Ilustra Boas práticasDANIEL BUENOThe National Science Foundation (NSF), the leading United States agency that supports basic research, has adopted a strict and unusual rule to end an investigation into scientific misconduct. To resolve an episode that had dragged on for 12 years, the foundation declared the authors of an article on the process of nanoparticle synthesis published in the journal Science in 2004 ineligible to apply for future NSF financing. This, despite considering that the authors were not guilty of misconduct. An investigation did show, however, that they had violated an agency rule, which is to report all significant findings. According to the NSF, the process in question could not be reproduced by other researchers because the authors had omitted data that would permit replication of results.

The NSF also broke new ground by opening a path for the punished authors, three researchers from North Carolina State University (NCSU). They could regain eligibility for financing provided they send Science a letter reporting the problems and including the omitted data. The authors did that and rehabilitated themselves with the NSF, but the journal opted to retract the original paper instead of publishing the letter because its editors believed that the omissions compromised the integrity of the article. The decision attracted attention because, in most cases in which misconduct is proven after NSF investigation, authors face suspension of federal financing for a limited period of time, and the article is canceled. In cases considered to be less serious, like the one in question, the punishment tends to be moderate.

In 2006, an NCSU researcher had tried to reproduce a study on nanoparticle synthesis published two years earlier by Lina Gugliotti, Daniel Feldheim, and Bruce Eaton, who were affiliated with the university at the time. The attempt failed and the possibility of misconduct was raised. In 2008, an investigation by NCSU concluded that the electronic microscopy experiments used to study particle formation had not been performed correctly. At about the same time, the University of Colorado had also examined the case, but found nothing wrong with the research. The impasse led the NSF, which had financed the study, to investigate. It reached the conclusion that the authors had omitted important data from the article. On the Chemical & Engineering News website Bruce Eaton, co-author of the paper, challenged the decision by Science to retract the article instead of correcting it. “I know the nanoparticles described in the work are reproducible,” he said.