Field of Science

Angewandte Chemie retracts hexacyclinol paper. Sort of

So it seems that the infamous hexacyclinol saga has been finally put to rest and Angewandte Chemie has retracted the paper. For those chemists who might still be unfamiliar with it, it's not hard to explain: Total synthesis paper published in 2006 with more holes than the vacuum of deep space. Multiple blog postings and papers demolish the claim within months. Journal does not retract the paper for six years.

Well, now the journal has published the retraction. Here's what it has to say:

The following article from Angewandte Chemie International Edition, “Total Syntheses of Hexacyclinol, 5-epi-Hexacyclinol, and Desoxohexacyclinol Unveil an Antimalarial Prodrug Motif” by James J. La Clair, published online on February 9, 2006 in Wiley Online Library (, has been retracted by agreement between the author, the journal Editor in Chief, Peter Gölitz, and Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA. The retraction has been agreed due to lack of sufficient Supporting Information. In particular, the lack of experimental procedures and characterization data for the synthetic intermediates as well as copies of salient NMR spectra prevents validation of the synthetic claims. The author acknowledges this shortcoming and its potential impact on the community.

What I find disappointing about this retraction is that it's just not strong enough in denouncing the paper. It's not just that the procedures were irreproducible or that the supporting information was incomplete, it's that the whole synthesis was essentially...make believe. This was made clear by papers published later (re-synthesizing the natural product and calculating and comparing NMR spectra) which demonstrated beyond any shade of reasonable doubt that whatever was supposedly synthesized in the paper simply couldn't correspond to the structure of hexacyclinol as we know it. 

I think this is an important difference that the retraction does not acknowledge; it's the difference between saying "we think this could be wrong but we can't be sure since we can't reproduce the data" and "we are almost certain this is wrong since independent studies have convincingly demonstrated its utter implausibility".

Update: Carmen Drahl from C&EN has a superb Storify summary of the hexacyclinol saga over the last six years which features some of the blog posts commenting on the debacle. Carmen was also kind enough to post a picture of my cherished hexacyclinol t-shirt which I am still eager to break out; as I said in my email to her, I am still waiting to wear it at a big party where fellow t-shirters get together, laugh with sadistic glee, and mock the scattered bones of hexacyclinol's atomic constituents.

1 comment:

  1. That's a relief. I assume that it must have been very difficult for the editor-in-chief and the author to lose face like this, hence the half-ass retraction after six years. Still, it allows me to finally start sending manuscripts to Angewandte again. Ever since the story broke, I promised that I wouldn't send anything to that journal until they'd retract the paper that was proven without doubt to be daringly fraudulous.


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