There was an article on “Stripy Nanoparticles” in the Times Higher (THE) by Paul Jump on Jan 10. It was followed by a series of comments. Most of the comments (a substantial number from anonymous commentators) reckon that there is no evidence for stripes on nanoparticles.
However, there is one set of comments from someone who calls themselves “Nanoparticle Scientist”, which defends the data from the lab of Francesco Stellacci. Despite the moniker, this particular commentator claims to be sufficiently outside the field to not be an expert, yet able to make value judgements. So what value judgements do they make? They make absolutely no impact on the technical arguments. Instead, they take refuge in the argument that, because the evidence for stripes on nanoparticles are published and so peer-reviewed, they must be right. In a second posting to add some muscle to the argument, they add that given the 50 collaborators who have published with Francesco Stellacci on a number of these papers, then the level of scrutiny of the evidence must have been so intense that it must be correct. These arguments are, at best, a tautology.
I commented at THE regarding the first argument that publication does not mean that data are correct. I used as examples the cases of Melendez and Schoen, which I have previously alluded to (here and here). Significant numbers of papers are found wanting after publication for a variety of reasons. The peer-review process often fails to pick out many errors. Even normal careful reading does not pick up errors. For example, a friend and colleague recently told me that he had read carefully all the Melendez articles that used fluorescence activated cell sorting (FACS) and had failed to spot the problems – yet this person is a real sceptic and careful reader. The end result is that whole series of flawed papers can be published before anyone realises that all is not well.
What about collaborators? Not sure how the number of 50 is arrived at – perhaps the commentator “Nanoparticle Scientist” is closer to the stripy nanoparticles than they have admitted, or they got the papers, waded through the footnotes on each author’s name to arrive at a total. In any event, one can ask simple questions: how many of the collaborating authors are experts in STM? How many of the collaborating authors did more than engage in their own speciality? Likely none. So the collaborators are likely blameless in all this, taking material at face value and providing data.
But how could the collaborators not look closely? Quite simply, the papers are published so they “must” be right. Moreover, the work is somewhat outside our field, so we don’t look too closely. This gets to the heart of the problem. Publication provides an aura of respectability, whereas in reality, it is only the first step in the process. Respectability is earned through the work being a reproducible measurement, rather than experimental noise and the interpretations of the work (or the product) are useful in some way. It may surprise some, but in science we tend to give the written word more credence than it is worth. This may stem from the strong emphasis placed on publications for success (jobs, tenure, grants, etc.), rather than on the actual impact of the work.
So the arguments put forward by “Nanoparticle Scientist” really don’t stand up to scrutiny.
One interesting question is whether any of the collaborators have started to make stripy nanoparticles in their own labs (synthesis according to the papers is facile) for their research? Apparently not. As I noted in my own comment at THE, only one lab other than Francesco Stellacci’s has tried this, that of Raphaël Lévy. The result is a challenge to the original body of work, rather than agreement.
So we remain in a position where:
(1) On the key technical issues of whether the STM and TEM data used to support the existence of stripes are meaningful, we have no further input. The only people to try to contradict this are an editor at Nature Materials and some anonymous commentators. Nothing wrong with their status or profession, but they have not addressed the evidence for stripes, because they have not addressed any of the technical issues. Instead, they have preferred to take refuge in tautologies such as “its published, so it must be true”. Bishop Ussher also published, but we know his methodology was wrong – remember, he calculated that the earth was formed in 4004 BC.
(2) The number of instances of self-plagiarism of data, which have been extensively noted on Raphael’s blog and here have now been acknowledged by all the relevant journals. In some instances I have received what could be termed a decision. However, some of the journals are still working on this. So while I can report that some of the decisions that have been communicated to me are at variance with normal academic practice on “plagiarism and collusion”, in the interests of fairness, my commentary on this will wait until I receive notice of all decisions on this matter. However, this commentary will make interesting, if rather depressing, reading.
(3) Most worrying for anyone who considers science to be an open and democratic process aiming to advance knowledge and better the human condition is a commentary by Mathias Brust at THE. In essence, Mathias states that informal discussions with around 50 peers arrived at what I consider to be a disturbing viewpoint: the consensus opinion was that calling time on poor science would damage your career and reduce your chances of getting grants and papers published. Moreover, most would rather not stand up and be counted: that is, most would prefer not to engage in the process of critically evaluating science.
To this latter majority, I recommend that you spend a few minutes studying history: at the very least remember the words of Pastor Niemoller:
“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me”.
Updated 3 November 2013