Raphael’s paper in Small on the likeliness (or lack of) of ligands self-assembling into stripes on nanoparticles is finally published. As Raphael notes, this took three years (plus six months at journals that would not touch the paper). Hats off to Small for letting science work as it should, that is through debate.
However, the process is slooooow. Why? Simply because we no longer operate in the agora where everyone meets regularly. Consequently, it is possible for substantial delay to occur whilst editors request a right of reply, something over which journal editors have no control. As Raphael’s Head of Department, I would say that this makes the process quite destructive with respect to the career of young tenure track staff who need to get papers out just to stay in the system. So, as ever, the established have a lever over the unestablished.
So how does a Head of Department judge such a polemic and come to a decision that has to be defended in discussions with senior management, when we justify budgets, hirings, tenure decisions and so on? My initial approach was to discuss some of the underlying techniques, such as scanning probe microscopy, with which I am familiar, with leading technical experts outside my own institution and the nanoparticle field. This allowed me to appreciate the limits of measurement and so come to an independent view. The upshot is I defended Raphael’s position and now senior management appreciate the importance of Raphael’s contribution to scientific debate.
Where now? Polemic aside, what I would like to see is experts in the measurements, who will not be in the nanoparticle field, to weigh in with their views and, importantly, advice. In this way the community will gain with respect to making technically challenging measurements, be it by scanning probe microscopy, spectroscopy or some other technique. We might then be able to make some progress.
Finally, one should always remember that science is a series of progressive approximations. Newton is “wrong”, but works fine to get you to Mars and back. I don’t think this has been put better than by Richard Feynman in his 1964 lecture from which we have this excerpt, entitled “The Key to Science“.