Structurally unsound


Are chemists anally retentive when it comes to chemical structures? Making sure that structures are error-free is certainly vital for a chemistry paper (and for an editor, one of the biggest headaches of the job). Just one wedge bond displayed as a hash could completely confuse the take-home message of a paper.

So imagine how annoying it would be if you saw a structure being repeatedly published with errors in it, and in lots of different places. This is just what has happened to Ian Fleming.

Back in 1967, he published a paper in Nature that finally nailed the absolute configuration of the structure of chlorophyll (Nature subscribers can see the paper here – it’s well worth a look). Yet he reckons that since then, whenever he has seen the structure reproduced, there is a 50:50 chance that the stereochemistry will be wrong.

Over the years, he’s tried to correct this where possible, including, on one occasion, an incorrect structure on a book cover. But it still happens. Out of curiosity, I had a look at the structure on Wikipedia – and sure enough, it was wrong (see for yourself, but be quick; I’ll contact them shortly to get it corrected). The actual structure can be found here at PubChem.

Who knows how often this happens? But then again, if a structure appears somewhere that isn’t necessarily directed at chemists (such as in the Wikipedia entry), does it really matter? Is it just the chemist’s equivalent of getting upset about the incorrect use of an apostrophe? I think it does matter – especially in sources on the web, which are increasingly being mined for technical information. But if you think I should just take a cold shower and calm down, by all means let me know.


Andrew Mitchinson (Associate editor, Nature).

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