Hype Now, Hide Later: No Way to Do Scientific Research

05/28/2013 12:35 pm ET | Updated Jul 28, 2013
  • David H. Bailey Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (retired) and University of California, Davis
  • Jonathan M. Borwein Laureate Professor of Mathematics, University of Newcastle, Australia

The scientific world is suffering through a rash of examples of the sad consequences of the "hype now, hide later" approach to scientific news.

Stem cell breakthrough?

physics04On May 15, 2013, a team of researchers from Portland, Oregon, Boston, Massachusetts, Thailand and South Korea announced in the journal Cell that they had succeeded in producing personalized human embryonic stem cells, which in theory could be used to produce any component of a human body. Other researchers in the field praised the work. Dieter Egli of the New York Stem Cell Foundation described the work as "fantastic."

The media coverage has been enormous.

Within days, however, irregularities were noted in the paper. In a PubPeer commentary, a researcher noted that one figure in the paper is a slightly cropped version of another figure. Another image is a slightly cropped version of a supplementary figure. And a third figure appears identical to a separate image in the article. Cells in one image were labeled one way, yet the same cells in the corresponding image were labeled another way. Some other irregularities were noted as well. What's more, as the commenter noted, the article in question was accepted just four days after it was submitted. Wasn't this a little hasty?

Stem cell scientists, who were initially ecstatic at the results, responded to these revelations in dismay. As Kevin Eggan of Harvard wrote to ScienceInsider, "It's a shame that this important area of research has come under scrutiny once again." He was thinking specifically of the Korean human cloning scandal that has played out over the past decade.

On the plus side, researchers do not yet feel that the irregularities noted in the paper call in question the paper's principal conclusions. But it is clear that this result will need to be carefully replicated in other laboratories. Egli, for one, said that he and his colleagues are already attempting to replicate the original claims.

The journal Cell defended its decision to accept the paper, saying that its reviewers agreed to review the paper in a timely manner. They asserted that "It is a misrepresentation to equate slow peer review with thoroughness or rigor, or to use timely peer review as a justification for sloppiness in manuscript preparation."

The authors of the original paper are examining "every dot" in preparation for a corrected version. But other observers fear that damage has been done to a field that has already been tarnished by many fraudulent stem cell claims.

Fundamental physics breakthrough?

A parallel episode was seen on May 23, 2013, when in a feature article in the UK Guardian, eminent Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy described the work of his "colleague" Eric Weinstein, who, according to du Sautoy, may have found the long-sought grand unified theory successfully describing all the fundamental particles and forces of the universe simultaneously.

In his article, du Sautoy explains how Weinstein's theory is fundamentally anchored in symmetries (his own field of research):

Weinstein's theory does this by revealing the presence of a new geometric structure involving a much larger symmetry at work, inside which the symmetry of the Standard Model sits. What is so compelling about the geometry involving this larger symmetry group is that it explains why you get two copies of something with 16 particles but also that the third generation is something of an imposter. At high energies it will actually behave differently to the other two.

Du Sautoy also asserts that Weinstein's theory is the "first major challenge" to the validity of Einstein's field equations.

Marcus Du Sautoy himself is an internationally known mathematician, studying group theory and number theory. He is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and also President of the U.K. Mathematical Association. He is certainly no stranger to the public stage, and in this capacity knows very well the principles and standards for scientific announcements. Thus his report had substantial credibility.

So has Weinstein finally found the "theory of everything"?

Sadly, du Sautoy's report was immediately criticized. In a New Scientist commentary, physicist Andrew Pontzen noted that neither du Sautoy nor Weinstein have provided the expected set of detailed technical papers, or even a single paper, outlining the theory. Weinstein himself is not known to the mathematical physics community -- he received a PhD in the field from Harvard twenty years ago, but left academia soon after and now works in the financial community. Pontzen acknowledges that Weinstein may have something to say, but most certainly he must go through proper channels, and he has not.

Pontzen notes that

Physicists are inherently conservative. New claims, especially bold ones, face stiff resistance. That's for a good reason: faster-than-light neutrinos, anyone?

Pontzen's mention of faster-than-light neutrinos is a reference to the 2012 episode where a well-respected team of researchers announced that they had measured neutrinos racing between their experimental facility in the Italian alps and the CERN facility near the French-Swiss border 60 nanoseconds faster than light. The measurement was later attributed to a faulty connector handling GPS data.

Pontzen also faulted du Sautoy and Weinstein for giving a technical presentation at Oxford without inviting anyone from the physics department. Indeed, while Weinstein was presenting his theory in one hall, theoretical physicists were in another room listening to a speaker discuss charge-parity violation. As physicist Subir Sarkar explained, "It's surprising that the organisers did not invite the particle physicists to attend -- if indeed the intention was to have a discussion."

Pontzen notes that while there may be no firm standard for announcing a claimed breakthrough, du Sautoy has clearly "short-circuited science's basic checks and balances."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that both the Guardian and de Sautoy have some significant explaining to do. A story of this magnitude on most topics would require some serious fact checking and further assessment by the editors. The most charitable construction suggests that du Sautoy, through excitement, abused his easy access to global media, while the Guardian was more than happy for the splashy headline.

Along this line, it should be noted that the Guardian did not publish du Sautoy's note merely as a "book review" or an Op-Ed piece. Instead, it was, from all appearances, a sober announcement of a new scientific discovery. As such, it should have met the standards of a serious scientific announcement.

In any event, it is clear that we will have to wait a little longer for that "theory of everything." Darn.

Standards for scientific research

All of this underscores, once again, the need for (a) careful peer review, (b) full disclosure of data and methods, and (c) careful standards for press coverage of scientific results.

The current stem cell controversy, for example, strikes of somewhat sloppy and hasty peer review, while as noted the du Sautoy-Weinstein controversy certainly violated standards of press coverage (no contacting of other experts, no peer-reviewed, published technical article, or even a solid manuscript to back up the report).

Some additional relevant discussion can be found in: sloppy science and fraud, sloppy press reporting, reproducibility in scientific research, and the need for stable, non-politically-directed scientific funding to reduce the pressure for hasty press coverage. In these four articles, we have analyzed the reasons such events seem to be occurring with increasing frequency, and have made some suggestions on how to reduce their future occurrence.

UPDATE: Pontzen has subsequently acknowledged that in fact some attempts were made to publicize the Weinstein talk at Oxford. See the addendum in his New Scientist article.