Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist Publicly Retracts Paper, Garnering Praise From Peers

Professor Arnold and fellow Nobel Prize Winner in Stockholm In December 2018. Bengt Nyman via Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Professor Frances Arnold won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018, sharing the award with George P Smith and Gregory Winter for their research on enzymes. The reason why the American scientist is in the news is that she publicly retracted a paper she published last year.

The study, which came out last May in the prestigious journal Science, focused on using enzymes to precisely construct lactam rings, molecules found in the core structure of many antibiotic families. It was written by graduate student Inha Cho and post-doctoral researcher Zhi-Jun Jia, with Arnold as a senior author. Professor Arnold took to Twitter to announce they were retracting the paper.

“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. The work has not been reproducible,” the scientist wrote in the tweet.

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The journal concurrently posted a retraction note, stating that when the team tried to do the work again, they didn’t see the original results. Looking over the lab notebook of the first author, they realized raw data and other entries were missing from the final analysis that was published.

“It is painful to admit, but important to do so. I apologize to all. I was a bit busy when this was submitted, and did not do my job well,” Professor Arnold wrote in a follow-up tweet.

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Professor Arnold’s public message has many praising her scientific integrity. Replies to the tweet showed admiration for such a retraction, with many stating that clarifying mistakes and admitting being wrong is how science should be conducted.

The retraction has given more attention to the ongoing discussion on the reproducibility crisis in science and medicine. Career progression for many researchers demands more and more that they increase the number of publications they can get in prestigious journals. This pressure to publish can make for bad science, affecting medicine and the social sciences the most, but as is clear in this case, the physical sciences are not immune either.

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