Nobel Winner Owns Up to Mistake, Earns Praise

Frances Arnold apologizes over yanked paper
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 6, 2020 11:49 AM CST

(Newser) – A scientific journal has retracted a paper co-authored by a Nobel winner, but the move is making headlines for a reason you might not expect. US chemical engineer Frances Arnold is earning plaudits for integrity for the way she quickly owned up to the mistake, reports CTV. "For my first work-related tweet of 2020, I am totally bummed to announce that we have retracted last year's paper on enzymatic synthesis of beta-lactams," wrote Arnold of the California Institute of Technology. "The work has not been reproducible." The tweet came as the journal Science announced that efforts to replicate the work had failed. Arnold, who won the chemistry Nobel in 2018, then followed up on a more personal note: "It is painful to admit, but important to do so," she wrote. "I apologize to all. I was a bit busy when this was submitted, and did not do my job well."

As the BBC notes, many of Arnold's colleagues have praised the mea culpa. "Science should be a process, not winner takes all whatever the cost," wrote professor Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow. "Entrepreneurs are encouraged to fail well, but in science it's still taboo. I hope when I slip up I'm able to do it so openly and well." At Forbes, Bruce Y. Lee writes that he hopes Arnold's move might lead to a culture change in the pressure-filled world of scientific publishing. "There is a big, big difference between an oversight and deliberate scientific misconduct," he adds. Arnold tells him she has been struck by the response to her apologetic tweet, particularly from young researchers terrified of making or admitting mistakes. "It should not be so difficult to retract a paper, and it should not be considered an act of courage to publicly admit it," she said. (Read more Nobel Prize in Chemistry stories.)

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