You are here

Hastening to Judge?

  • Photo: Purabi Deshpande / Research Matters.
    Photo: Purabi Deshpande / Research Matters.

Last month, doctoral student Mr. Dev Kumar Thapa and his advisor Prof. Anshu Pandey from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, claimed to have discovered evidence for superconductivity at a temperature much higher than ever before. The researchers have posted a preprint of their paper titled, “Evidence for Superconductivity at Ambient Temperature and Pressure in Nanostructures” to the arXiv, an online repository of pre-prints of journal papers. They have also submitted a paper outlining their findings to the journal Nature.

Superconductors are a class of materials that offer no resistance to the flow of electricity through them. Hence, they can be used to build devices that are highly energy efficient. Unfortunately, it turns out that most superconductors need to be cooled to very low temperatures to be used, which is a challenging and energy-intensive process, making most industrial applications impractical. However, there is no fundamental reason why some material could not be superconducting at room temperature. As a result, there has been enormous interest in looking for room-temperature superconductors ever since superconductivity was first discovered in 1911.

In their pre-print, posted on 23 July, Thapa and Pandey claim to have observed superconductivity at a much higher temperature than ever before. Their result is that a composite material of gold and silver offers no resistance to the flow of electricity, to the limits of their instruments, when cooled to -36 degree Celsius. If the result is verified, it will open up a wide array of industrial applications. 

Understandably, their claims have been met with much interest in the press. Initially, the coverage was mostly positive, even laudatory, with one article drawing comparisons with Sir C.V. Raman’s Nobel Prize-winning work. However, soon, the tone in much of the press turned skeptical. Questions have been raised about the research, and a full-scale debate about the merits of the study is being conducted on the pages of newspapers, electronic media, and even social media. This development raises several questions about the role that responsible science journalists must play in covering this and similar controversies that may erupt from time to time.

On the one hand, it could be argued that since the paper has been submitted to a reputable journal, and is awaiting peer-review, it is akin to the matter being sub-judice, and therefore science journalists must reserve judgment, and not express any opinions in advance of the concerned journal.

On the other hand, some would argue that peer-review need not be sacrosanct. Journalists could equally well say about the merits and demerits of a research paper. Furthermore, journalists can solicit opinions about the research from eminent scientists in the field. Finally, it is also argued that peer-reviewers are not necessarily more thorough than science journalists in checking for potential problems in a research paper.

However, this nature of argumentation appears to overlook several advantages of the peer-review process. Firstly, the reviewers are carefully chosen by the editors of the journal from among experts in the particular field of study. Secondly, the identity of the reviewer is not revealed, either to the authors or the public at large. Thirdly, most journals permit authors of research papers to exclude certain persons from being considered as potential reviewers if they believe that such persons would be prejudiced against them or their research for personal or professional reasons. These safeguards increase the likelihood of reviewers carrying out their work impartially and without prejudice.

In this particular instance, questions of various kinds have been raised about the research reported in the preprint in the public debate. If details of the experiment are missing from the preprint as is being alleged, that is the responsibility of the peer-reviewers to pick up. The peer-reviewers, who are experts in the field, are best placed to determine precisely what details must be furnished to put the credibility of the experiment and its results beyond any reasonable doubt.

Similarly, if there are issues with the data and noise patterns, it is right for other scientists to raise the question as Dr. Brian Skinner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has done. He has been quick to add on the social media platform, Twitter, that he was merely pointing out features of the data that he found odd, and was not making any allegations of impropriety. Subsequently, the authors are understood to have communicated with Dr. Skinner, promising to look into the technical issues he has raised. Meanwhile, other physicists have opined on the matter with suggestions and explanations about how the noise patterns could have arisen. Ultimately, the peer-reviewers are best placed to seek the necessary comments and clarifications from the researchers, and if necessary and possible, ask them to repeat their experiment.

There has also been a rather intriguing, but perhaps unnecessary controversy about who sent emails to whom with what content, which I will leave the interested reader to follow for themselves on Dr. Skinner’s twitter thread.

The public debate about this preprint is particularly unfair on the researchers as they are embargoed from issuing public statements until the journal decides their submission. Any fair process of inquiry demands that when allegations are made or aspersions cast on a person, they have a reasonable opportunity to respond.

Rather than hastening to pass judgment, we would do well to await the outcome of the Nature peer review process. Admittedly, the peer-review process does not conclusively establish the truth or falsity of a claimed result. However, publication in a reputed peer-reviewed journal would mean that the research has been able to get through a degree of professional scrutiny, where at the very least, the most apparent queries and objections would have been raised and addressed. Hence, the result can be believed with a certain degree of confidence which would increase if future research corroborates the published findings. Alternatively, if future research produced different results and cast doubt on the published results, one would be less inclined to believe it.

In this instance, given the importance of this research, there will inevitably be several efforts to repeat the experiment to find out if the result can be reproduced. Dr. Skinner has already remarked that some of his colleagues have “dropped everything to start working on this problem”. Reproducibility is one of the necessary tests of the objectivity of science, and such efforts to replicate this result should pronounce the final verdict on this research in a manner independent of people’s opinions, not a media trial or even the decisions of a  journal’s reviewers or editor.

The issue which requires introspection by Science Journalists is whether they should don the hat of self-appointed peer-reviewers under the garb of telling the story of science to the public. Where do we draw the line?